I’ve long had an obsession with the show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” The original iteration of the show aired on The Food Network for many years, highlighting famous chefs’ and Food Network personalities’ favorite dishes in various categories like “Messy” and “With My Hands.”
I make it a goal whenever I travel to seek out a dish featured on the show when possible, but never had I seen something highlighted on the show that I’d already tried before. That was until one of my local obsessions, The Annex Kitchen (which I’ve featured on FresYes before), announced they were about to appear on a new season of the show on The Cooking Channel. Two of my favorite things have come together, so of course I had to go find out more from Chef Jimmy Pardini.
A must-try for visiting Food Network personalities
The Annex Kitchen opened in the former Pardini’s Café space in Fresno about two-and-a-half years ago. The Pardini family is, of course, known in the Valley for their catering. After several years of working and training in restaurants in L.A., Jimmy Pardini returned to Fresno to work with his father, Jim Pardini, Sr. The two began talking about revamping Pardini’s Café, which is located adjacent to the Pardini’s banquet hall on Shaw Ave.
“The more we talked about it, the more we just sort of decided, well, if we’re going to go forward with this kind of menu, this kind of concept, it’s got to be a complete overhaul, and that’s what we did,” says Jimmy Pardini. “Basically, the restaurant is a culmination of sort of my travels and culinary training and experience, and what I enjoy eating, and what I think a neighborhood restaurant should be. And obviously with the Italian influence, because that’s … what led me to cooking in the first place.”
The resulting restaurant has been a resounding success. You know I’m not exaggerating if you’ve ever tried to get a table at The Annex Kitchen without a reservation, even on a weekday. The handmade pastas, oven-baked pizzas, and unique cocktails are just part of what has drawn patrons in from all over—including Food Network personalities Tyler Florence (who posted to his Instagram from the restaurant last November) and Simon Majumdar.
Majumdar enjoyed Chef Pardini’s sweet corn agnolotti so much, he announced on Instagram it was the best dish he ate in the U.S. in 2016.
“He travels all over the world. So that was, like, a huge honor for us,” says Pardini.
Annex Kitchen + Fresno State corn = match made in heaven
This of course had everyone, including me, flocking to The Annex Kitchen to try the seasonal pasta as soon as it was available again this past summer. The agnolotti, made with fresh-picked Fresno State corn, is in fact incredible and unlike anything I have tasted before.
“I’ve always kind of wanted to do something with Fresno State corn, and I remembered a ravioli dish I had one time where there was corn, and I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll do the agnolotti with corn and kind of see how it goes,’ ” says Pardini.
He and his staff thought the pasta was definitely good enough to go on the menu, but they never expected the success and national attention that would follow.
“As far as patrons were concerned, it was a thing that they had to order every time,” says Pardini. “It’s funny; whenever I make something, it’s kind of like … they’re equally my babies. I didn’t think of this dish as, like, ‘This is gonna be the one.’ It’s kind of like you don’t know your hits until they happen.”
The agnolotti was such a hit for Majumdar that, in addition to his social media praise, he has now chosen to feature the dish for his part of the “Life Changers” episode of “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” in which chefs reveal “unforgettable dishes that changed our lives,” according to the show’s website.
Majumdar filmed his part separately, and a Cooking Channel crew came to Fresno and spent all day in the kitchen, filming Pardini cooking the sweet corn agnolotti from start to finish. The episode airs Monday, Jan. 8, at 5 p.m. on The Cooking Channel. You can watch it to learn the proper pronunciation for the word agnolotti, which took me a good year of ordering to say correctly!
Changing menu offers seasonal variety
While the sweet corn pasta will not be available again until the next Fresno State corn harvest, there are plenty of other seasonal dishes and daily specials worth trying at The Annex Kitchen all year long, including a delicious agnolotti stuffed with butternut squash.
“Whenever I’m developing a dish, I’m kind of taking into consideration what time of year it is,” Pardini says. “Sometimes it has to do with vegetables I want to showcase, but also other times it’s … the gnocchi with swiss chard and duck. I’m like, ‘Well what is a nice winter-oriented pasta we haven’t done before?’ That’s not something that I would really necessarily want to run in the summer time as a special. Summer time, maybe I would do something lighter with fresh tomatoes.”
My current favorite is the squid ink pasta Chef Pardini introduced several months ago. One of the appeals of The Annex Kitchen for me is the ability to get innovative food that I could previously only find in cities like L.A. and San Francisco.
“That’s an example of pasta where I thought we’d sell a few every night, but it just kind of blew up. People were ordering the crap out of it,” Pardini says. “I was like, ‘Wow, people really like this stuff around here.’ … I think sometimes in Fresno, people think that nobody’s open to anything or there’s like this stigma, but people are actually really open to stuff like this, especially right now. I think it’s a really exciting time.”
You can follow The Annex Kitchen on Facebook to find out about daily and seasonal specials. They are open every day at 4 p.m. except Mondays. As I previously mentioned, reservations are highly recommended and can be made on the restaurant’s website.