It was roughly 90 minutes after walking into Caffé La Tana — when three plates of food had been delivered, and we’d drained our first cocktails and were making quick work of a bottle of wine we had no intention of ordering until the spirit of the evening swept us up — that Kley and I exchanged an incredulous glance that essentially said, “Is this happening?”
Because what was happening was nothing less than a convincing approximation of life as we vaguely remember it from almost two years ago, but without the reckless disregard for public health such a statement might imply. It was dreamlike and magical and slightly disorienting — much like almost every aspect of our meal.
When we first visited earlier this year, largely to investigate the Italian-style donuts Kley had seen online (and which didn’t disappoint), Caffé La Tana’s dine-in service was suspended, as it was everywhere else, and was operating solely as a grocery and take-out counter. This has always been part of its business model — the vintage shelves and refrigerated case inside the entrance have been stocked since day one with cheeses, condiments, dried pastas, imported canned seafood, and much more. And you can get, say, an excellent breakfast sandwich with prosciutto, a kale salad or a house-made pasta to go.
But last week, we opened the door onto a very different scene. It was essentially a civilized party in full swing — the bustling Italian café its owners had always intended this space to be — for which the price of admission was providing ID and proof of vaccination. While servers were masked, as were patrons when they stepped away from their responsibly-distanced table, we otherwise felt as if we’d somehow time-travelled backward to the innocent, happy-go-lucky heyday of February 2020.
Every table had been claimed (there aren’t many), but we were happy to graze and gulp around the edge of a large communal standing table — in fact, when seats did become available, we elected to stay where we were. (Similar to Mount Pleasant’s Como Taperia, Caffé La Tana encourages a Eurocentric casualness we’d love to see more North American eateries adopt.)
From the compact but diverse evening menu, we chose a meltingly tender Albacore tuna crudo (pictured above), simply yet impeccably dressed with lemon, basil oil and flecks of Calabrian chili; and a basket of ingenious Cacio e Pepe fritti (the invention of chef Phil Scarfone), in which the classic cheese-and-pepper pasta is battered and fried like arancini.
Co-owner Paul Grunberg — a familiar sight from sister restaurants Savio Volpe and Pepino’s Spaghetti House — implored us to order an off-menu special that would “knock [our] fucking socks off”: a beef tartare atop which he shaved a possibly immoral amount of black truffle. And it was at this point that the night tipped over into a sort of benign surreality. The intense deliciousness of everything we were putting into our mouths, combined with an atmosphere borne of profound gratitude that this sort of gathering together is possible again (which led us and our fellow diners to talk to one another as if we were all long-lost friends), seemed to envelop the room in a glow of contentment so total, we were reluctant to ask for the cheque for fear of breaking the spell.
Fortunately, there was still to come a daily pasta special (striped ravioli with shrimp, confit garlic and a lemon-butter sauce — as good as it sounds), a more-chocolate-than-chocolate Torta Tenerina with Amarena cherries and mint, and a pair of utterly transporting grappas we tried at the urging of chef Vish Vaishnav. In total, it was the sort of experience for which you become nostalgic while it’s still happening.
Outside on Commercial Drive and in the wider world, life was up to its usual nonsense: all manner of heartbreaks and infuriations and petty grievances and people who won’t compromise their “freedom” for the greater good and just get the fucking shot already. But those things weren’t welcome inside Caffé La Tana, and it was as good as a vacation at a fraction of the cost and effort.
(Photo: Kley Klemens)