THIS VENUE HAS CLOSED AND WILL RE-OPEN AS DOLCE CASA IN MARCH 2010.
When James Ventrella, a self-described "old rockabilly kind of guy," came across an empty spot on Damen Avenue, he knew he'd found a home for his cafe. With the original 1920s tin ceiling and bakery floor, a wood-burning fireplace added in the '70s, and abundant exposed brick, the spot just felt right. In opening the cafe, Ventrella added a half dozen dark-wood tables and a cluster of deep red chairs and sofa around the fireplace. The end effect is an open, clean-line look that wows diners in the details.
The same can be said of the menu, which focuses exclusively on Italian panini, often with an American twist, and gelato. The selection of panini rotates among the likes of tuna salad and fig and blue cheese, with the Ventrella (tomato, basil, provolone and giardinera) and Prosciutto (prosciutto, provolone and thin slices of green apple) offered daily. At $6-$7 each, the panini are paired with slices of sweet, juicy watermelon, and can be polished off with a shot of Lavazza espresso.
The gelato, though, is the real show stopper. Handmade by a local artisan who works out of his home, the creamy dessert comes in classic Italian flavors like stracciatella (a light chocolate chip) and nocciola (hazelnut) as well as more American varieties like the tart and creamy mandarin orange sorbetto, studded with dime-size chunks of sweet, melt-in-your-mouth orange. Flavors vary by season and by the mood of its maker, but you'll have your pick of six to eight options daily (and at only $4 for a double, you won't have to choose just one flavor).
Average cost: <$10
Centerstage Reviewer: Kate Rockwood