A Nod To Fellini, Jazz And Italian Food
Wednesday - July 20, 2011
Behind a wrought iron gate within an office building, beyond a glass door emblazoned with hand painted signs and flourishes of paint, sits Café VIII 1/2. No secret to the downtown office crowd, the restaurant offers freshly made pasta, homemade Bolognese and hope that even in a market with increasing food costs and declining profits, passion remains a vehicle for greatness when it comes to food.
Part Tuscan living room, part downtown office/artist’s studio, there’s an edginess to VIII 1/2 that’s amplified by teetering stacks of plates on dressers, mismatched tables and chairs, and dozens of drawings suspended across the room. Above the kitchen door a note painted on graying linen warns customers to venture no further, and beyond that you’ll find Robert Warner, the man who gives life to dishes such as Radiatore Verde (kiawe-grilled steak strips over zucchini pesto pasta), Stufato Di Manzo (Italian beef stew with rice) and Panzanella (classic Italian bread salad).
On a morning late last week, I watched as he carefully hung sheets of freshly made pasta onto a haphazardly strung line above the dining tables.
“I use a rolling pin,” he said. “It’s really the only way to get the texture right.”
The light catches the near translucent sheets as they sway gently to and fro, drying in the barely air conditioned room sharing space with Warner’s ink renderings of famous jazz musicians.
“I’ve always loved the food thing,” he says, heading back to the kitchen to make lunch.
But lunch is for the downtown crowd those whose reward for high parking fees and cubicle time is a plethora of restaurants within one square mile. Go instead for dinner. It happens only once a week Saturday night and seating is limited to the capacity of the dining room, about 30 people. The menu is whatever Warner decides to make, and usually includes handmade bread or freshly made cheese and those silky ribbons of rolled dough transformed into light, airy lasagne or creamy, cheese stuffed cannelloni.
“Sometimes at lunch it’s just too busy to make everything from scratch, ” says Warner. “But on Saturdays I have time to shop and make the pasta by hand, and the sauces.”
A recent Saturday night menu included freshly made ricotta infused with herbs and sun-dried tomatoes served with homemade foccacia, a selection of salami, grilled eggplant and Italian tuna salad. Next, a pasta course of rigatoni with a simple red sauce finished with pesto, followed by panko-crusted chicken breast with white beans, mushrooms and sausage. Cake and ice cream ended the meal that cost diners little more than $30.
“People seem to have a good time,” says Warner, who alongside wife Jali runs the ultimate mom-and-pop operation. He shops, creates and cooks, she serves, does paperwork and washes every last dish and spoon.
“When something is this small, you can control it,” he says. “It’s harder when you bring in other people.”
At lunch, choose from daily specials or a menu that includes kiawe wood grilled Italian sandwiches, spaghetti with carbonara sauce, chicken in wine and tomato sauce served with rice, and a spicy but subtle puttanesca and steak strips over zucchini pesto pasta. But on Saturday nights there’s no menu. Guests turn up confident that they need not worry about the food.
“We have great customers,” says the artist/chef/philosopher. “They enjoy conversation, bring their own wine and know they don’t have to think too much about the food. It seems to work better that way.”
Make reservations early in the week for the Saturday night feasts, as the small dining room fills up quickly. Bring wine, good friends and anticipate a dining experience you’ll not soon forget.
Oh, and if you must go for lunch, try later in the afternoon after the initial mad rush for tables is over.
“Tell everyone to come at 1:30,” says Warner. “It might be calmer then.”
Quieter maybe. Calmer? I wouldn’t bet on it.
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