Restaurants come and restaurants go. The latter event can elicit a yawn or a pang. We checked out Café Fresco a few months after it opened in 2002 and were favorably impressed, so we paid a recent visit to see if it's kept up its standards. We left smiling.
The dining room is still a pleasant, calming space, for those not in the mood for a table near the bustling bar. The walls are cream-colored rather than burgundy these days, but the lighting is romantically dim. This is an Italian-oriented restaurant, not a bistro, so the tablecloths are not covered with paper or glass. The hot, freshly baked Italian bread was served with peppery olive oil poured into saucers, rather than butter. (Is the wheat stalk motif on the chandeliers and wall sconces subliminal appetite stimulation?) The wine list on the back of the large menu presents at least five or six choices in the basic varieties, plus categories such as "Interesting Imports." Offerings by the glass are carefully chosen. Among the Shirazes, for example, as well as the expected Australian Rosemount there is a California, Butterfield Station, that's not only less expensive but perhaps more interesting tasting — it won over Johnnie, ordinarily no fan of Shiraz, with its lighter spice.
The appetizers ($8-$13) are numerous, north of a dozen, with something for every taste preference — as long as you like seafood, since all but three are such. You can have your calamari sautéed instead of fried, and if you don't want your bay scallops fried, you can have them spicy and sushi style. Taking a cue from that array, I started with seafood soup ($8) which, like the others — pasta fagioli, vegetable, and chicken — is listed as "Made to Order." It was delicious but perhaps misnamed, since the seafood component consisted merely of a littleneck clam, a medium shrimp, and no more than a teaspoon of fish. The fresh and not overcooked vegetables, however, were plentiful and the broth was flavorful.
The tempura "swordfish bites," served with seaweed salad and spicy caper mayo, sounded interesting, but Johnnie's choice was the oven-roasted eggplant wedges. On the four lengthy strips the skin was not at all tough, and there was plenty of tomato sauce and melted cheese for every bite.
We happened to be there on a Monday, so one of us took advantage of a rather eyebrow-raising special those nights: $22 for any entrée plus salad and a yummy chocolate mousse dessert. That's quite a deal, considering that several main dishes are $24 by themselves, such as shrimp and sausage fra diavola, seafood marinara, and vegetable risotto with sautéed shrimp.
Yes, the entrées also lean heavily toward seafood offerings. Feisty trend-bucker she is, Johnnie went right to the mushroom ravioli ($18). Five large ravioli were in an abundance of creamy pesto sauce, nicely balanced, along with pieces of fresh tomato. Simple, tasty. She also very much liked the dressing on the Caesar salad, something she is picky about.
Despite the seafood bias in the kitchen, 15 meat options are on the menu. The New Zealand rack of lamb ($26) as your Monday night special choice would be quite the bargain. The roast pork tenderloin, rolled in pesto-seasoned breadcrumbs and drizzled with garlic truffle oil, was a temptation, but something intrigued me more. The grilled tuna puttanesca ($23), with vegetable risotto, isn't something I'd expect to find anywhere else, so I went for it.