In 15th-century Florence, wealthy Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici was a patron of the arts who commissioned the painter Sandro Botticelli to paint "The Birth of Venus," that much-imitated and parodied image of a fully grown, auburn-tressed goddess emerging from the sea, naked, on a giant seashell (think Bette Midler concert tour or the scene in the first James Bond film, Dr. No).
In more recent times, the patron of Independence — lawyer and developer Ken McClain — used a gargantuan detail from Botticelli's painting as a focal point for one of his many renovation projects around the city's historic square. "Venus," in all her naked glory, dominates the bar side of Café Verona, the Italian bistro that McClain and his wife, Cindy, opened five years ago in the building that was a Jones Store from 1950 to 1975. In those days, postwar concrete panels covered the original brick façade. The McClains ripped off the concrete and, behind that original brick, created a tasteful, European-style courtyard. At the back of this cozy space, massive doors lead into Café Verona. Each door features a small gilded head of some distinguished-looking noble. Could it be one of the feuding Capulets or Montagues? Romeo and Juliet is, after all, set in the ancient city of Verona.
"Whose head is on the doors?" I asked the young woman behind the hostess counter at the entrance.
"Oh, it's just a head," she said, shrugging. "Nobody in particular."
I looked back and realized that it was a nearly exact likeness of Don Rickles.
After stepping into the narrow entry, my friend Bob wandered over to the atrium-style bar to admire the enormous version of Botticelli's bodacious Venus.
"Did the McClains hire someone to paint that?" I asked.
"No," the hostess said, clutching the plastic-sheathed menus, impatient to lead us into the dining room. "It's wallpaper. Three giant sheets. But it looks like a painting, don't it?"
Grammar, I discovered, is one of the continual little reminders that Café Verona is not a sophisticated trattoria but a pleasant small-town Italian restaurant with affectations. But if the service is somewhat attentive and the food is good, who cares if the beer isn't served with glasses? Café Verona doesn't aspire to be the next Jasper's. At least, I don't think it does.
Bob wasn't so sure. "When you walk in, you think it's going to be kind of fancy," he said. "But it isn't."
Fancy, I reminded him, is in the eye of the beholder. By most small-town standards, Café Verona would be considered plenty classy. And the menu hasn't been dumbed down; it promises enough creative and stylish dishes that I wouldn't hesitate to bring a snobby foodie or two here. I'd just have to steer them away from the less successful innovations.
On the Tuesday night that I dined there with Bob, Bill and John, the room was bustling at 7 p.m. and nearly empty before 9. "It's an early dinner crowd," I said, looking at the big guy in overalls and a baseball cap sitting at one table. He was devouring his meal, so whatever he was eating, he was loving it.
I wish I could say that I loved the fontina fondue, described on the menu as "warm fontina cheese sauce served with a variety of fruits and breads." It was less a fondue than a ramekin of thin, runny, bland cheese sauce sided with slivers of dense flatbread, a smattering of raspberries and a couple of dried dates. It wasn't fondue — it was fon-don't.
An appetizer is gratuitous here anyway, because dinners include a tasteful little house salad and one complimentary basket of crusty "Verona bread." Ask for more, and you pay $3. We were halfway through our salads when our server stopped at the table to tell Bill that the veal dish he'd ordered for dinner wasn't available that night and he would have to order something else. He was disappointed but decided on salmon Florentine instead. (I was charged for the more expensive veal dish anyway.)
When one has his heart set on veal Marsala, grilled salmon and sautéed spinach isn't going to cut it. Not for Bill, anyway. "The spinach is good," he allowed, "but the preparation is not extraordinary."
John and I ordered pasta. And one of the more appealing concepts here is that most of the pasta dishes come in full or half sizes for customers (like me) who adore carbohydrates but need to be more modest in our lust for them. But just because I could have requested a half-order of the garden lasagna doesn't mean I did. The hefty hunk of pasta was layered with spinach, caramelized onions, mushrooms and other vegetables in a rich Alfredo sauce, blanketed with enough molten mozzarella to have topped three large pizzas. To eat that kind of lasagna, one needs to wear overalls.
John wisely did request a half-order of that night's pasta special, a fettuccine in cream sauce tossed with pieces of grilled salmon. He found it surprisingly lemony but didn't say anything else about his meal until he requested a box to take most of it home.
Bob loved everything he ordered. He couldn't rave enough about another pasta special, a spicy sausage-and-tomato concoction, and was equally enthusiastic about his side dish of baked artichoke hearts, the Verona bread and the salad. "The food's delicious," he said. "But they need to train the servers. They're a little rough around the edges."
At that exact moment, Heather plunked a cold beer bottle in front of Bill and walked away. Well, maybe those edges were more than a little rough. But she was enthusiastic about the dessert selection, which included an eggy crème brûlée (Bob loved it) and "Berries Medley," a soupy purée of berries sautéed in brown sugar and butter, served in a big coffee cup with a scoop of ice cream. So was John's tiramisu, which probably should have come in a highball glass because it was so light on the espresso and heavy on the booze.
I came back two more times for excellent lunches. Bob insisted on joining me for one so that he could sample the excellent macaroni and cheese, made with orecchiette ("little ears") in a soothing, creamy sauce made with Parmesan, cheddar, mozzarella and mascarpone. That day, I lapped up every drop of a robust onion soup and made quick work of a crunchy pesto chicken panini. At the other lunch, I had the half-order of tortellini with cream and ham; it was so good that I wished I'd insisted on a full order.
But if I had, I would have felt too guilty spooning up every decadent bit of custard and ladyfingers in my cup of tiramisu. And who wants to feel guilty after a good meal? Like the triumphant Venus, I could strut out of Café Verona feeling completely unashamed. But so well-fed that I wouldn't do it naked.