Like a fine wine, Caffé Gelato getting better with age

There sure are some strange restaurant names out there.

They range from the mildly misguided – “Striper Bites” in Lewes – to the overtly shameful – “Crabby Dicks” instantly pops into mind.

Some seem driven by conceit – witness “Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities” – others reach for some vague hipster association with minimalist culinary ideals – if Philadelphia’s “Fork” is permitted to exist, will we one day find ourselves embarrassed by its casual cousin, “Spork”?

Naming a restaurant something that seems uncomplicated – Manhattan’s luxurious “Daniel,” for example – then insisting that we must pronounce it “Danielle” is the height of pretentiously deceptive Frenchification. Perfectly decent restaurants even have been besmirched by overly ambitious graphic designers – take Hockessin’s “Dome,” where an unfortunate typographic concept makes it appear that the “m” is capitalized, leading some quipsters to wonder exactly what they sell at “Do Me.”

Others sound good enough, but risk unintentionally deceiving diners about expectations, especially when they seem linked so firmly with a specific product. Ryan German was probably thinking he’d be content to open a little coffee and frozen confection shop called “Caffé Gelato” back in 2000, and for years, some people were content to see it that way, even as German steadily ratcheted up the food.

By now, it’s become clear that the name does absolutely no justice to Caffé Gelato. The addition of chef Brad Dawson and an ambitious physical expansion have given Newark’s best fine dining restaurant enough culinary coolness to stand near the state’s leaders in upscale cuisine. That’s now a far easier conclusion to make when you’re sitting in the subdued-but-classy new room (the old Bert’s Compact Discs), cast in a refined light by brick walls studded with flickering candles.

Selections from the 120-bottle list beckon from a new glass enclosure, complementing a menu full of dishes that speak of far higher notions than any ice cream shop.

At the same time, Caffé Gelato’s upwardly tweaked ambitions seem to consciously avoid pretention – a dish like steamed littlenecks ($11) is a moment of refinement not because it is innovative, but because Dawson and German insist on delivering it at its utmost delicacy, swimming in garlicky lemon-butter. Fat shrimp stuffed with crab meat ($10) pick up bright accents from the sweet corn emulsion, bell pepper relish and sliced avocado.

Through the years, Caffé Gelato’s appeal was at times diminished by inconsistency, by a tendency to let its ambitions exceed its reach. Dawson’s dishes offer proof of a steadier grip on the subtleties of upscale cuisine, especially once past some wobbly appetizer moments. Strangely, some of these come when the kitchen fails to reach far enough. The honey-tarragon dip for perfectly fried fried calamari and pepperoncini ($9) offers little beyond a treacly sweetness. A drizzle of truffle oil helps deliver a tasteful presence to short-rib shreds and a polenta cake ($13), though simply piling one atop the other fails to create the cohesiveness that such a dish demands.

Once past an unthrilling plate of fusilli with creamy crab sauce ($21), Caffé Gelato’s entrees nicely refute any suspicion that Dawson and company can’t overcome its miscues. Mustard-accented pork tenderloin ($21), a potentially ordinary dish, is executed nicely with a tangy, herb-scented sauce and a pairing with a dead-on creamy mushroom risotto.

Lamb simply cannot be any more luscious than this – double-cut chops, marinated with mint pesto, roasted to a savory crustiness, speaking of juicy pink happiness with each bite ($27). A 9-ounce veal chop ($27) finds a perfect foil for its mild character by wrapping itself with prosciutto, donning a cloak of crisp-roasted asiago cheese, and lying luxuriously in a pool of veal demiglace.

Those entrees alone prove Caffé Gelato has reached new heights, if not its zenith. The tweaks are minor – the odd ho-hum appetizer, the servers who brought just three of four appetizers. As one of the most conscientious restaurateurs in the state, German acknowledges Caffé Gelato has always been a work in progress, that perfection is a goal that must be pursued an inch at a time, through the days and the years.

The good news for Newark is, he and Caffé Gelato are almost there.

Eric Ruth is a News Journal reporter. Reach him at 324-2428 or by e-mail.

Caffé Gelato*** (very good)
90 E. Main St., Newark. 302-738-5811.

HOURS: Lunch Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Dinner Mon.-Thu. 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Sun. 4 p.m.-8 p.m. Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Gelato served opening to midnight.

DINNER PRICES: Appetizers $8-$12; entrees $19-$28.

CREDIT CARDS: American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa

RECOMMENDED DISHES: Crab-stuffed shrimp with sweet corn emulsion, tri-pepper relish and sliced avocado ($10); steamed littleneck clams with lemon-garlic white wine sauce ($11); roasted veal chop wrapped in prosciutto and asiago with veal demiglace ($27); pork tenderloin crusted with Dijon and rosemary with Dijon cream sauce and mushroom risotto ($21); roasted double-cut lamb chops marinated in mint pesto ($27).

FOOD: Caffé Gelato’s maturing presence and Newark’s need for dependable fine dining options elevate new chef (and Dome alumni) Brad Dawson’s menu of Mediterranean creations past a few minor slip-ups, helped by a broad wine list and a more consistently upscale character.

ATMOSPHERE: The expansion into a new room lifts Caffé Gelato into a more elegant realm, with earthy tones, candlelight and cozy banquettes.

SERVICE: Energetic and bright, blessed with enough youthful charm to mitigate a few fumbles.

HEALTHY OPTIONS: Appealingly broad salad selections and well-portioned appetizers make it easy to craft a lighter meal.

CHILDREN’S MENU: Yes (pasta, pizza, PB&J, grilled cheese).

OUTDOOR SEATING: The tables on Main Street offer some of the state ’s best ogling opportunities.

by Eric Ruth
The News Journal

Originally published online March 13, 2008 under Entertainment & Dining at
© 2008 News Journal
Reprinted by permission