Skimpy menu rich with tasty entrees

In my shiftless and frequently misguided wanderings though college, it was common practice to venture regularly out to Main Street in Newark, where we eminently unsophisticated college students could partake of such eminently unrefined pursuits as girl watching, french-fry munching and completely aimless loitering.

So it certainly was a surprise to see on this one fine evening not so long ago a string quartet, poised elegantly out on the sidewalk, smack in the middle of a town known more for poorly over-amplified rock ‘n’ roll than classical interludes. As they passed Caffé Gelato, the wandering Newarkians would pause, listen and maybe even drift inside.

Some never got far enough to take a table; some were there just for coffee or a drippy gelato cone; and to them I say you truly missed a chance — a chance for an evening out that not only includes free string quartet concerts, but food that’s just elegant enough and just cheap enough to suit any college town’s overeducated-but-underfunded sensibilities.

Surely no freshman making his way through Calculus 101 on a diet of frozen waffles, tuna-salad subs and caffeinated liquids could fail to see the bargain and the delight in a Mediterranean-accented menu that ranges from $2.95 Belgian waffles with whipped cream at the low end to $15.95 roasted tuna steaks at the top. Collegiately artsy sensibilities can be fulfilled musing over the outstanding art photos lining the walls, even if the execution of the food occasionally can be less than artful, and the menu far too thin.

At Caffé Gelato, the spirit and the style go far to make up for the imperfections.

We could wish for a broader appetizer selection than a cheese plate ($9.50), a tomato-and-mozzarella focaccia ($6.95) and a vegetable frittata ($7.95), but we take solace in two panini — Italian “sandwiches” of thick, soft focaccia bread stuffed with a deliciously smoky grilled portabella and gorgonzola ($6.45), or a somewhat ordinary tuna salad with olives, sweet peppers and herbs ($5.95).

Good enough, but maybe better suited to a lunch break than this fine evening awash in Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. This is a time for contentment, for slow-and-easy dining, something that the usually easygoing servers might remember as they rush you to order entrees.

Of course, overenthusiasm is far easier to abide when you are in possession of a pinot noir and a tuna steak that has been rubbed senseless with herbs and spices (i.e., lots of pepper), then grilled perhaps a bit too long, but just judiciously enough to preserve a solid dose of flavor.

And at these prices, who could fret that their cous-cous is slightly clumpy, especially when it accompanies a $13.95 chicken breast that’s been crusted with sweet pistachios, perfectly roasted and balanced by a slyly snappy dijon mustard sauce. Yes, it was more expensive than a carton of dining hall chicken nuggets, but served also without the possibility of gastrointestinal upset.

After such a success as the chicken, it’s surprising to see chef Graham Reese let his “frutti di mare” seafood pasta ($14.95) be so bland, especially when he was so kind to fortify it with chopped clams, nice little shrimp and unaccountably overcooked calamari.

There’s a sense that maybe such an ordinary dish bores him, that he’s at his happiest filling out the meager four-entrée menu with solid specials that show a more exciting edge. Marinated judiciously and coated with a cognac glaze, the “Anatra Italiana” ($15.95) is an earthy refinement of duck quarter falling off the bone, enoki mushrooms and chevre-fortified mashed potatoes.

It reminds me how delicious duck can be, and also reminds me that the last time I encountered a duck that was this tender, it cost about $10 more, and came with the decidedly inferior accompaniment of tipsy Wilmington yuppies instead of this soothing string quartet.

It’s certainly sufficient to make us content to just sit here, to enjoy these well-crafted desserts and wait for the day when Reese adds some fried calamari, or some fiery mussels, or some other similarly vivacious delicacies to his minimalist menu.

Until then, be happy. Just nibble your gelato, raise a toast to Mr. Bach, and think — this is the way hanging out on Main Street really should be.

by Eric Ruth
The News Journal

Caffé Gelato

Address: 90 E. Main St., Newark; 738-5811

Hours: Breakfast Mon.-Sat. 8 a.m.-noon; lunch Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Sat. 5-9 p.m. Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Credit cards: Discover, MasterCard, Visa

Dinner prices: Hors d’oeuvres $6.95-$9.50. Entrees $12.95-$15.95

Smoking policy: No smoking

Food: Whether they knew it or not, Newarkians always needed a place that delivers (usually with deft execution) reasonably priced and inventive Mediterranean-inspired cuisine. Now, if they can just expand that too-tiny dinner menu.

Atmosphere: Cozily bohemian, with the occasional classical string quartet to smooth over Main Street’s roar.

Service: Occasionally rushed, but friendly and fast.

Eric Ruth is a News Journal editor and copy desk chief. Reach him at 302-324-2819

Originally published June 20, 2001, The News Journal
Copyright ©2001, The News Journal
Reprinted by permission