Intelligent Italian

Whether you want a quick lunch or a nice weekend dinner, Caffe Milano will delight

This could easily be two reviews. Caffe Milano has two distinct personalities; both are very good, but definitely different. Daytime finds the place crowded with workers from nearby government offices and small businesses. Then on Friday and Saturday evenings, things mellow out, and folks can enjoy a romantic, casual dinner, Italian-style.

I ate lunch there twice, and in spite of the fact that tables were in short supply, I was able to get in and out in a short amount of time. For our dinner visit, we spent a leisurely hour or more and enjoyed some great Italian food.

For my first lunch visit, I ordered one of the many panini. This one was called a Naviglio ($5.75). Served on focaccia, the sandwich was filled with gorgonzola, goat cheese, roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, tomatoes and lettuce--and it was probably the best panino I've ever tasted. The sandwich was perfectly grilled on the outside with warm, gooey cheeses and bright flavor coming from the vegetables (especially the roasted red peppers). I savored every bite.

For dessert, I had the lemon cake ($2.50). Typically Italian in nature, the well-browned cake was plainly served, with no icing or extra sugar. It was more tart than sweet, with tiny bits of lemon peel throughout. It was a light dessert, indeed, perfect for lunchtime.

My second lunch visit happened after the lunch rush, so I was able to take in the décor. There are two small high-ceilinged rooms, with a windowed wall where you can sit at a high counter to eat. The counter, where you order your meal, holds a glass cooler filled with Italian sodas and other bottled drinks. There is also a case filled with desserts. The walls are painted in burnt hues of golds and reds. Colorful vases and other knickknacks (some a bit odd, like an African mask) are tucked into alcoves here and there, and posters and pictures of Milan hang all around. It's a nice look.

I ordered the Caprese salad ($6.25), which came with a choice of sides. I went with the soup Florentine. My soup was at the table in no time. The broth was almost too light, but the white rice and spinach made this a pleasant little cup of soup. The salad arrived before I could finish the soup. Bright with the colors of the Italian flag, the plate held five thick slices of fresh tomatoes, five slices of fresh mozzarella and a row of fresh greens. The dressing was a light vinaigrette that had been tossed with mixed olives, red pepper strips and artichoke hearts. A healthy dose of dried oregano had been sprinkled across the top. (It brought back memories of my grandmother's kitchen.) Desserts that day were limited to muffins, none of which appealed to me.

As pleasant as my lunch visits were, dinner was a true delight. On Friday and Saturday evenings, the place takes on the mantle of a trattoria. Lights are dimmed; the menu is expanded; the pace is leisurely, and there is table service (albeit a tad unpolished).

We snagged a table on the patio. The sun was setting, and Italian jazz danced in the air. Regrettably, service was slightly disjointed. We were enjoying ourselves, but once the busperson filled our water glasses, we were pretty much ignored. After a bit, I went inside to get our menus. Eventually, I caught the server's eye, and she came by, explaining they were short-staffed, down two people; she apologized for the delay. Everything picked up after that.

We ordered the tagliare antipasto plate ($9) as a starter. John ordered the veal Marsala ($18), and I ordered the gnocchi ($9). We also ordered a bottle of red wine, Ajello Majus Rosso from Sicily ($20), off the nice little wine list. The prices on the list ranged from $18 to $68 and presented nice choices in both white and red (most of them Italian, of course).

The antipasto was all meat--coppocola, prosciutto, salami and mortadella. A tiny bowl of mixed olives, sweet red peppers and artichoke hearts (similar to, if not the same as, the mix that topped my Caprese salad) was served alongside as was a bread basket with garlic focaccia and dinner rolls. We ate every bit, except the mortadella, which I will never learn to appreciate.

Our entrées followed shortly. John's was a plateful of thinly sliced veal in a smooth and savory wine sauce. As a unique touch, a medley of roasted veggies (potatoes, baby carrots, mushrooms, peppers and broccoli) was served on the side. The Marsala was a great version of this classic dish--the veal practically melted in the mouth--and the veggies were a nice change from pasta.

The generous serving of gnocchi was delicious. The pasta, again reminiscent of my grandmother's, was light yet still had a dense texture to the tooth. The tomato sauce was thick with well-cooked tomatoes and cheese. I had to ask for Parmesan, but was pleased to note that the Parm had been freshly grated. I would order this again in a flash.

For dessert, we ordered the chocolate bonet ($5) to split, and I had a caffe Americano. A bonet is a custard, yet this version resembled a panna cotta (custard yes, but made without eggs). The thick slice had been flavored with chocolate and a hint of Kahlua with a drizzle of chocolate sauce. There was a bit of a nutty crust, which played well with the creamy custard. It sounds rich, but it proved light and refreshing. After such a rich meal, it was an ideal complement.

Caffe Milano is a wonderful little spot--especially now that the weather is cooling down, and patio dining is back in full swing--for a leisurely evening meal or a quick, delicious lunch. Caffe Milano also serves breakfast (starting at 8:30 a.m. weekdays) with Italian-influenced egg dishes and a host of coffee choices.

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