Food Dude’s Restaurant and Chef of the Year1/1/2014
This year Café di Scala marked its 10th anniversary with several inconspicuous improvements. After a big transformation eight years ago from the Metro Market to its current home in a 19th century Sherman Hill mansion, subtlety has characterized changes at Tony Lemmo’s modern Calabrese café. This year the kitchen was renovated for efficiency, the pasta-making room and wine cellar were remodeled (and will soon accommodate small parties), and landscaping was upgraded. Chef Phil Shires added a few new dishes to his menu, and Lemmo found some new wines for his all-Italian wine list.
Drastic alteration does not fit Café di Scala’s profile. Customers would be outraged if much changed in these charming historic dining rooms, wrap-around porch or bar. The café still serves only dinner and only three nights a week. They added a monthly brunch service two years ago, but the venue is so popular with private parties that just three or four public meals a week anchors a solid business plan. The dinner menu remains elegantly simple, with just four entrees, three pasta, one soup, three salads and nine antipasti. Less is more here.
Lemmo is a third-generation Calabrese Des Moines restaurateur. His mom is a Lacona, as in Noah’s, Mama Lacona’s, Bambino’s, etc. His paternal grandparents owned Lemmo’s. Café di Scala writes its signature in egg and flour — 100 percent scratch pasta, an art Lemmo learned from his mother LuAnn. He makes food and wine pilgrimages to Italy to keep his menu and wine list current. The latter includes rare brands and up-and-coming varietals like Montepuliciano from Abruzzo, Lagre from Trentino, Negroamaro from Apulia and Gaglioppo from Calabriaalso. Inexpensive wine sips are sold to help guests appreciate regional subtleties.
Since opening Café di Scala, Lemmo has also partnered on Frank’s, two Gusto Pizza stores, Host and Hot Shots. Shires’ skills make much of that possible. His menu stays small but changes seasonally. Several Calabrese dishes remain a focus — mitili con crema (blue mussels in a white wine and cream sauce with shallots), crostini rustica (squash and ricotta in balsamic fig reduction), Romana di melananzane (eggplant layered in cheese and marinara), peasant soup with caramelized onions and Marsala and two pasta dishes that have cult followings — cappellacci di zucca (“bishop caps” stuffed with squash, Pecorino Romana and brown sage butter) plus Lemmo family cavatelli made with marinara, sausage, Romano and basil. Shires has added two other Italian influences. Cioppino (fresh seafood stew in tomato sauce) comes from San Francisco’s North Beach Italian neighborhood and has become so popular he complains that customers won’t allow him to remove it from seasonal menus. He’s also become a devotee of Marcella Hazan, the Emilia-Romagna-born chef who wrote “the book” on that region’s cuisine. He uses her recipe for Bolognese, which employs beef (or beef and pork) in its ragu and is served with polenta cakes instead of pasta. From the same source, Shires added a tagliatelle con agnello — a rosemary pasta served with leg of lamb (from Ames’ Onion Creek) reduced in three liquids and served with Sicilian olives. He says it often outsells the cavatelli.
Entrees are hearty — a New York steak, a large pork chop, and a stuffed chicken breast on a recent visit. Desserts vary but often include family recipe cannoli with ricotta cream and a panna cotta served expertly outside its mold. Last week Mama Lemmo made Calabrese holiday dessert pastries soaked in wine. The monthly brunches feature Beatles music, a savory and a sweet course and an after-dinner drink.
Bottom line: Café di Scala is my choice as restaurant of the year and Shires as chef of the year.
Side Dish Mercy College of Health Sciences will host a buffet breakfast of Colombian dishes Thursday, Jan. 23, from 7-9 a.m. for $12. Contact Maureen at 273-8569. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.Café di Scala 644 18th St., 244-1353 Thurs.-Sat.: 5-10 p.m., brunch on first Sunday of each month.