The Colors of Italy
Feast. Food, Wine & Restaurants
June 15-21, 2000
The Colors of Italy
By Catherine Coburn
Little Napoli is big on fresh, rustic flavors.
For a chef/proprietor who never set out to get into the restaurant business, Richard Pepe has surprised even himself. Born in New Jersey to a big Italian family that saw aunts, uncles and grandmothers all competing with one another for the best Bolognese and eggplant parmesan—a contest that would be decided over a course of year spent around the Sunday dinner table—Pepe grew up around the fresh, rustic flavors brought over from Napoli. A baker by trade, by the early ‘90s he’d become the owner of Wishart’s Bakery and Carmel Bakery. When restaurant space came available in 1991, Pepe and his wife, Sandra thought “Why not?” They unfurled an Italian flag over the door and the family recipes found a home at Café Napoli on Ocean Avenue.
Finding an eager market for his homey-style cooking, Pepe opened a second location around the corner on Dolores called Little Napoli. Things get a little confusing if you’re comparing the two venues; Little Napoli outgrew its predecessor a few years ago, doubling in size so that it is by far the bigger of the two. Pick up a menu, however, and you’ll find identical selections of homemade pastas, pizzas and seafood, with bread and desserts brought in fresh from the bakeries.
We visited on a busy weeknight, sniffing our way through the door, enticed by the alluring smells of ripe cheese, garlic and tomato sauce, our noses not failing to notice that we could have been entering our Italian grandmother’s kitchen (if we had an Italian grandmother). The dark-stained wood floors, vine-covered windows and floral oilcloth table coverings pick up on the same theme, and piped-in Frank Sinatra completes the trick.
According to our palates, it’s squid season, so that’s where we began. Nice dredged in seasoned cracker meal, a jumbo plate of calamari ($7) quickly met its final destiny in our company, aided and abetted by roasted garlic-carper ailoli. Toothsome and tender, all it lacked were some crunchy tentacles (to our thinking, the best part), not in evidence on this occasion. Mussels Arrabiata ($7) was our next stop, a dishg featuring Easter black mussels with a faintly sweet flavor, marrying well with the spicy tomato sauce.
ON a previous occasion the zuppa di pesce (a bargain at only $7) was deemed a seafood lover’s delight, full of shellfish with chunks of salmon, perfumed with saffron. This time the Tuscan bean soup called my name. The minestrone-style soup ($5) was flavorful, full-bodied and light at the same time. Pressing on, the hand-tossed bella bianca pizza cleverly combined several earthly delights to ascend ethereal heights: thin-sliced smoked salmon, gorgonzola, capers, red onions, tomatoes and basil—10 round inches of heaven itself.
Across the table, my companion was patriotically engaged in consuming the Italian flag. The cannelloni tricolore makes a big splash, with marinara, Alfredo and pesto sauces doing a delicious imitation of the red, white and green flag. Grilled chicken fills a giant cylinder of fresh pasta, along with sautéed mushrooms and zucchini. At $12, the half portion presented my companion an ample challenge to finish, even with my assistance. It was extra yummy paired with glasses of smooth Villa Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva, a winner of Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence.
You’ll find also Antinori olive oil on the table at Little Napoli. It’s some of the best that Italy produces and along with aged balsamic vinegar, it’s some of the best stuff that ever happened to a basket of freshly made bread.