Our World Traditions Meet New Jersey-Style Italian At Napoli In Carmel
For Italians, the center of family life occurs around the dinner table, where warm, lively conservation enhances the flavor of soulful, hearty food. Carmel’s Caffé Napoli adopts each diner into an oversized Italian American clan—arrive here and it’s suddenly Sunday dinner in South Jersey. The senses come alive in concert—the smell of grated hard cheese and tomatoes, the sight of animated, arm-waving dialogue, the sounds of silverware gnashing and Sinatra’s dulcet tones as a calming undercurrent.
This is the way it was meant to be, the way it was for chef-owner Richard Pepe, who was born in New Jersey to an extended Italian family that saw aunts, uncles and grandmothers gather around pots of sauce—perhaps a concoction of veal scaloppini or Milanese-style osso buco, or something for il pescatore, just like the fishermen did it back in Napoli.
Pepe grew up around the earthy, rustic flavors from coastal Napoli and unveiled four generations of recipes when he opened Caffé Napoli in 1991. A baker by trade (he owned Wishart’s Bakery and Carmel Bakery), Pepe and his wife Sandra created a winning formula with their come-as-you-are eatery, serving authentic Italian food at value pricing. They call it New Jersey-style Italian American cuisine but Caffé Napoli—and its nearby sister-restaurant Little Napoli, create considerable old world Neapolitain charm.
Caffé Napoli, located on Ocean Avenue, is small (36 seats) and narrow, but exhibits a cozy setting for parties of no more than four. Around the corner on Dolores, Little Napoli is roomier, seating roughly 60 people, and the high ceilings and expansive layout create a less-cramped feel.
The menu is virtually the same for both restaurants, but Little Napoli’s larger kitchen allows the chef more experimentation. Each place specializes in regional country-style pastas, cannelloni, pizzas and traditional Italian desserts.
Pepe insists on Monterey Bay seafood, and herbs and vegetables from Salinas Valley. They also incorporate locally hand-made mozzarella and goat cheese and import from Italy prosciutto di Parma, Antinori olive oil and aged cheeses.
The portions are more than generous and the meals are complemented by an extensive, above-average wine list from on-site cellars, earning the “Award of Excellence” from Wine Spectator Magazine in 1997.
I admit to holding a special affinity for each Napoli establishment, where we’ve spent many nights twirling pasta and swilling Chianti until someone locks the door behind us. The food is always outstanding, the service friendly and helpful, and the intangible—the feel of the place brings an unqualified contentment.
The dark-stained wood floors, vine-covered windows and floral oilcloth table coverings pick up on this welcoming theme. At caffe Napoli, we feel a bit too cozy on busy nights, knocking elbows with strangers and elevating our voices with 30 others to the level of a raucous soccer match. But it’s all in good fun and, the last few times, we’ve chosen Little Napoli to enjoy the extra breathing room. If I had to order my last meal at Napoli, I would chose the following (and I often do): aglio arrostito, crab bisque, insalata di gorgonzola and risotto salmone coco pazzo. Buon appetito!
It’s not that complicated even for a confused Norewegian such as myself. Aglio arrostito ($6.95) is an antipasti, a giant Gilroy garlic bulb, slowly roasted and mellowed with Napoli’s top-shelf imported olive oil and served with goat cheese, mixed with olives and oven-roasted tomatoes.
The crab bisque is often found on the specials menu. If you find it there, order it immediately. The thick, creamy bisque tastes sweet and buttery, with large chunks of Dungeness crab. It makes you close your eyes and hold it in your mouth like a chardonnay.
The insalata is made up of mixed greens, heady gorgonzola, Roma tomato, cucumber and candied walnuts ($6.95).
Napoli makes wonderful risotto, cooked just tender and sturdy to serve as a bed to two large chunks of poached salmon and an assortment of grilled in-season vegetables, often including asparagus ($17.95).
Top this off with aromatic coffee and something they call “Grandma Celia’s 100-year-old biscotti recipe,” add one more Super Bowl championship for the San Francisco 49ers—and I could die a happy man.
Oh, brother. He’s not exaggerating, though, about the bisque. The first think I ask is “Do you have the crab bisque tonight?” It’s perhaps my favorite thing, on any menu, anywhere, period.
One of they many noteworthy things about this restaurant is its dependability. It’s the place we go when we just want to sit and linger over good wine and old favorites. It’s the place you take out-of-town guests (many of whom will already have heard about the Napoli experience) because there are no surprises—just fabulous food served exactly the way you remember, in an atmosphere that exudes an old world country-style warmth and unhurried comfort.
My favorite Napoli appetizer is Caprese di Cristiano, fresh mozzarella and shallots served atop thick, ripe Roma tomatoes and drizzled with fresh basil and olive oil ($7.95). W routinely share the mixed greens and gorgonzola salad, and I often opt for a light pasta dish—pomodoro fresca, angel hair with a simple sauce of fresh Roma tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and basil ($12.50). The sheer freshness of the flavors make this entrée intensely elegant—and healthful. All pasta entées are served with a choice of angel hair, linguini, pappardelle or rigatoni (which stands up to some of the menu’s heartier meat sauces). I have also enjoyed the pesto Genovese, an interesting combination of pesto, pine nuts, green beans and red potatoes served with choice of pasta (13.50). And on a recent blustery night, I tried the Al forno Sinatra—baked rigatoni with Calabrese sausage, mushrooms and mozzarella ($14.50), which struck me as a kind of fabulous peasant-style comfort food.
At the end of a hectic work week, we sometimes pull Napoli’s take-out menu out of a kitchen drawer and call ahead for one of 11 10-inch hand-tossed pizzas ($12.50-$13.50). You just can’t go wrong at this place, which manages to be both classy and unpretentious.
The Monterey County Herald
March 20-26, 2003
Wine & Dine