2007-04-12 / Cuisine

La Trattoria Café Napoli

REVIEW

Even as I write this column, I'm having second thoughts.

My misgivings have nothing - or perhaps everything - to do with the meal I recently had at La Trattoria Café Napoli, a meal that was every bit as wonderful as the previous ones I've had there.

The dilemma stems from the fact that the food and hospitality are habit forming and there are a mere 26 seats in the dining room. That means that fewer than 80 mortals can dine there in a single evening - which amounts to 480 in a week. I've seen lines that long (well, almost) on a single night at some of the big chains.

So by spreading the good word and alerting more food lovers to its many charms, I exponentially lessen the chances of landing a seat there myself. I hate when that happens.

But never mind.

Chef/owner Gloria Cabral-Jordan works as hard as any two people I've ever seen, excelling both in the back and the front of the house. She deserves the kudos.

Cuban born and raised, now an American citizen by way of Sweden, Spain and the Dominican Republic, she's picked up the flavors and techniques of the countries she's visited, making for an interesting menu that doesn't fit into any of the usual categories. Her greatest talent lies in her ability to create superb sauces that transform whatever they touch.

The restaurant is casual to the point of being homey. Its nine tables are close enough that spontaneous conversations frequently crop up between perfect strangers. The fact is, you just can't be a stranger if you're among those who have found this little jewel just off U.S. 41 behind a gaming hall and a takeout Chinese food joint.

The petite dining room seems bathed in golden warmth, caused by the mustard-hued walls and plates, the red-brown floor tiles and red hanging lamps with beaded fringe that provide ambience while still shedding sufficient wattage to illuminate the menus.

A big vase full of bright red tulips dominates the front counter while knickknacks line high shelves - ornate olive oils, bottles filled with vivid vegetables, the occasional trumpet - adding a homey note.

And then, of course, there is the owner's radiant and sincere smile as she welcomes you to what is clearly a labor of love for her.

We had had the foresight to reserve a table the day before and it was a good thing. The place was full. Our table for two sat right in front of the restroom door, but was situated so that we weren't disturbed on the few occasions when someone availed themselves of the facilities.

The wine list is limited to about two dozen choices. We sampled the Cloudline pinot noir, a very fruity pinot from Oregon's Willamette Valley. The soft tannins, slight spicy notes and lots of cherry and berry flavors made it a good partner to both our appetizers and entrees.

Dinner began as it would go: with two terrific dishes. A montage of roasted then marinated vegetables - eggplant, red peppers, and zucchini - served cool is a refreshing alternative to salads and there's enough for two to share here.

We also split a plate of fat red tomatoes and creamy mozzarella topped with a pesto that was as bright in flavor as it was in hue. It literally lit up what can be a ho-hum dish. The serving of prosciutto that came with this dish merely gilded the lily.

Meat and seafood are well represented on the menu. On this night, we tried a fish special - red snapper served with artichokes, butter, garlic and topped with fried parsnips with saffron. The fish was perfectly cooked and remained moist and tangy owing to the rest of the ingredients, which wound up as a subtle, buttery sauce.

A beef tenderloin - salomillo rustico al Jerez concebolletas y clavos - was panseared with a sherry reduction, cloves, junipers and green onions. It came atop a mound of just-sweet-enough butternut squash puree and was topped off with crispy fried onions. The meat was juicy and tender and well complemented by the sauce that had just a hint of clove.

For dessert, we shared a baked apple stuffed with ricotta, laced with a hint of cinnamon and bathed in a sweet, light sauce. (An aside: This was a lovely dessert but flan fans should try Cabral-Jordan's creamy, rich version.)

Throughout the meal, we and the parties at the other eight tables were well tended to by Cabral-Jordan, who was head chef, hostess and primary server. She was assisted by a pleasant and hard-working young man who seemed to know just when to step in to fill a water glass or clear dishes and when to step back and let Cabral-Jordan work her magic.

Café Napoli is a place in which customers quickly feel like family and get treated that way. As we sat there, I heard couples at two tables promise to call about booking the whole place for a get together.

If they each bring in 20 people and those 20 each bring in… well, you can see what's going to happen.

I suppose it's inevitable that word of the 18-month-old restaurant will leak out. So my advice is this: Try it out yourselves - but don't tell anyone else! ¦

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