If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. So goes an old saying, one that's more or less the story — in a toasted hazelnut shell — of childhood friends Guy Tamburello and Paul Anselmo.
For 18 years the two operated a popular Italian restaurant — the original Café Italia on North Oak Trafficway — until the neighborhood changed dramatically. "First the movie theaters at the Metro North Mall closed," Tamburello says. "That hurt our business. And then the mall closed, and that area just seemed to die."
The business partners sold the building in 2010 and went on to work in different careers. "We never had any plans to get back into the restaurant business," Tamburello says, "especially in this economy."
But last year, the two former restaurateurs were offered a nice deal on a vacant Japanese steakhouse in Parkville. Tamburello and Anselmo liked what they saw: a free-standing building with a big, sunny patio and an intimate bar. Even the fish in the tropical fish tank were somehow still alive, though the space had been empty for months.
The new Café Italia, with a slightly edited version of the original menu, opened last November. Tamburello says it has been profitable since the first day, and I'm not surprised. This retooling of the original is a vast improvement in every possible way.
For one thing, the dining area is spacious and warm. If the North Oak Café Italia reflected the brassy spirit of 1960s Italian-American restaurant décor (trellises dripping with plastic grapes and artificial ivy), the new joint is unfussy and sleek.
Tamburello and Anselmo have created a kind of exhibition kitchenette in a corner of the dining room, using one of the previous tenant's teppanyaki exhaust hoods and installing a pizza oven (where miniature loaves of bread are also baked), costly pasta-making equipment (all of the pasta served here is made on the premises), and Tamburello's favorite new accessory: a gelato machine. Tamburello has been experimenting with different flavors. So far, he says, hazelnut is the hands-down favorite.
Complementing the goldenrod walls and dark woodwork are lots of windows. I wouldn't call the view spectacular, but from certain tables, you can occasionally watch a train go racing past, rattling the windows. It's a small thrill left over from a bygone era.
A more immediate and satisfying thrill is the scampi torino: sautéed shrimp in a thick, bubbling cream sauce fragrant with garlic and sherry. Save some of the sauce for the warm, homemade bread that is set on your table. Bread is an important component of Italian-American culinary traditions (my waistline is a testament to this), and there's something comforting about these pretty little yeasty loaves arriving at the table just in time to be topped with a slice of spicy capicola ham and a square of gorgonzola and a dollop of chunky caponata from an antipasto plate that's generous enough to hold its own as a light summer meal. It goes fine with an ice-cold house salad or the fancier insalata Toscana, a jumble of greens, apple slices, orange segments, cranberries, grapes and walnuts.
Light, however, is a foreign word here. Most of the pasta dishes on the secondi piatti list are unabashedly rich. Even one night's special, a bowl of freshly made bucatini (a hollow pasta tube, the thickness of a computer cable) looked simple enough, heaped with cubes of seared eggplant, salty Kalamata olives and a sprinkle of parmesan, but turned out to be deceptively, outrageously filling. (I'd pounced on the bread by the time it arrived, so that didn't help.)
The five veal dishes on the Café Italia menu are uniformly delicious, but the slightly more expensive (and somewhat more politically correct) bistecca con spezzi is divine. The slices of succulent beef tenderloin are nearly fork-tender and draped with a mahogany mushroom-peppercorn sauce that dares you not to clean the plate by any means at hand.
Of course, not everyone — and especially not I — can make a regular diet of decadent cream sauces. On two of my visits to Café Italia, I took a more health-conscious approach to temptation and chose an excellent pollo limonata and pollo Antonina. Tamburello's college-age son, Peter, who was working in the kitchen when I dined there, does a deft job with the limonata, a simple dish of sautéed chicken, white wine and a splash of lemon juice. Even better is the lemony, garlicky Antonina, draped in basil amogio, that tangy Sicilian marinade of olive oil, garlic, butter and lemon.
A hefty dinner at Café Italia — all of the entrées include salad or soup and bread — is a monument to big appetites, but the owners look askance at any customer paying his or her bill without at least a taste of dolce. The airy tiramisu is so light on the espresso that it could be an Italian cream cake, but Tamburello's huge and stupendously wonderful chocolate layer cake calls for 4 pounds of bittersweet chocolate just for the frosting. It really has to be the best of its kind in the city.
But Tamburello is particularly proud of that gelato. I tried, and loved, the hazelnut and the coconut versions, but I couldn't muster much enthusiasm for the chocolate walnut. (The salted pistachio had long since sold out on the evenings I visited, so I never got to try so much as a spoonful of it.)
Parkville's Café Italia proves the point that the second version of a popular restaurant can outclass the original. And if you don't believe me, ask Tamburello or Anselmo. They'll sit right down at the table and tell you the whole story. Just make sure to ask for extra bread first. They'll want you to eat while you listen.