August 21, 2007

The quality factor: Three local gems

Caffé Classico: Photo by Nicole Pullen Caffé Classico stands out on Frankfort Avenue for its cool, sophisticated Euro-style atmosphere and excellent coffee and espresso drinks. Owner-chef Tommie Mudd recently introduced a full dinner menu of reasonably priced French andIn a world where MBAs rule and where economic terms like “monetization” and “quarterly balance sheet” and even the blunt “bottom line” hold sway, it sometimes seems as if the simple concept of succeeding through high quality and honest service at a fair price has become old-fashioned and even a bit naive.Happily for local food lovers and the restaurant-going public, though, these sweetly antiquated concepts remain alive and well among many of Louisville’s excellent local, un-chained restaurateurs. We’ve stepped up to the dinner plate and had three home runs smacked directly at our taste buds in recent weeks. Let’s devote this week’s column to quick short reviews of a trio of memorable new dining experiences: the new dinner menu at Caffé Classico; the impossibly generous Sunday brunch at Mojito; and the return of the massive Impellizzeri family pizza to the Highlands.Dinner at Caffé ClassicoI’ve been smitten by Caffé Classico since it opened about four years ago. Even in an area as awash with excellent coffee shops as Frankfort Avenue, Caffé Classico stands out for its cool, sophisticated Euro-style atmosphere and its excellent coffee and espresso drinks. The bill of fare has gradually evolved to add an attractive lunch menu, with short but well-chosen wine and bottled beer lists. This summer has brought more pleasant surprises: excellent thin-crust pizzas and excellent Italian-style ice creams from Gelato Gilberto.Now the circle is complete as owner-chef Tommie Mudd rolls out a full dinner menu, a reasonably priced selection of French and Mediterranean-accented dishes that brings Caffé Classico as close as Louisville gets to the style of a casual French neighborhood bistro.We enjoyed a filling repast that didn’t miss a beat, starting with a Salade Lyonnaise ($6), feathery and pleasantly bitter frisee lettuce dressed with a light vinaigrette, served on a crisp, garlicky crouton topped with a perfect soft easy-over fried egg and a ration of diced bacon. Pommes frites ($6) are Belgian-style, stacked in a tall white-paper cone. They were accompanied by three small tubs of house-made sauces that improve on the usual ketchup, tartar sauce and ranch dressing intense, spicy flavors. Main courses continued the bistro beat: An 8-ounce slab of beef sirloin ($15), hot-pink medium-rare, perched on thick-sliced rounds of grilled eggplant and perfect roasted red-skinned potatoes, flanked by pencil-thin grilled fresh asparagus and finely julienned grilled zucchini.An oversize bowl of garlic shrimp and linguine ($15) was topped with at least 10 good-size, tender shrimp and dressed with fresh spinach, roasted garlic and a light white-wine and butter sauce.Glasses of Cardos Argentine Malbec and Martin Codax Spanish Albariño ($6.50 each) were perfect with the steak and the shrimp. Too full for dessert, we ended the meal with excellent espresso ($1.50). Mark this down as one of the most civilized evening meals around.Caffé Classico2144 Frankfort Ave.894-9689www.caffé-classico.comSunday Brunch at MojitoWhen the owners of popular Havana Rumba opened Mojito earlier this year, it took off like a rocket. The small, attractive Holiday Manor venue has been slammed with hungry supplicants just about every evening.Now add all-you-can-eat Latino-flavored Sunday brunch with a relaxing midday twist, and it’s getting crowded, too. (Best bet is to show up at opening time, 10 a.m. Sundays, although those who wish a libation will have to wait until alcohol is legal at 1 p.m. So much for the constitutional separation of church and state.)On a recent Sunday visit, I tried to sample just about everything on the three groaning tables, but flagged a bit toward the end of the marathon and found room for only a couple of desserts.Among particular highlights:• Spanish tortillas stand a full inch thick, light and airy omelet wedges stuffed with onions, cheese, diced smoky ham and tender, thin-sliced potatoes. Other tortillas sport fresh spinach or thin-sliced salami.• Palmito salad is loaded with tender hearts of palm and avocado wedges. Caprese salad features heirloom tomato slices layered with fresh, creamy mozzarella.• Empanadas, flaky pastry pockets filled with spicy beef, are addictive, but watch it, you’ll need to save room for more, much more.• Cuban black-bean soup is thick and dark, tender black beans swimming in a thick, blackish-purple pool.• Lechon asada and pollo asada — long-cooked, Cuban-spiced shredded pork and lemon-and-herb-infused chicken pieces, respectively, are my top choices from the main-dish buffet, but sun-dried tomato polenta and creamy garlic mashed potatoes were impossible to resist. Ginger-soy glazed salmon, ratatouille-style sofrito vegetables, and traditional American ham, bacon and spicy sausages all deserve a place on your plate, as do chef-sliced samples of rolled, stuffed roast beef and pork. • So many desserts! It would almost be worth coming back some time simply to indulge in the sweets alone. Remembering Mr. Creosote in “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life,” however, I limited myself to a slice of perfect Spanish flan and a wafer-thin bite of my wife’s tart, creamy key lime pie. Enough!All this brunch rings up a laughably modest $15.99 for adults; fresh-squeezed (and, it seems, sugar-added) orange juice ($2.99) and intense, espresso-like Cuban coffee ($1.50) are extra.Mojito2231 Holiday Manor Center425-0949Impellizzeri’s is baaack!There’s been a hungry hole in the Highlands ever since Impellizzeri’s Pizza closed in February 2005, so the level of excitement has been palpable ever since Benny Impellizzeri announced plans for a new pizzeria in the Bardstown Road quarters that had housed Alameda Grill.His new spot lives up to all the excitement, and it, too, has been jammed since opening night in July.To this critic’s taste buds (and to those of longtime LEO columnist c d kaplan, who excitedly declared it “a Parthenon of Pie”), Benny hasn’t forgotten a thing. His pizzas, which could be used to illustrate the dictionary listing for “humongous,” set the standard for the piled-high Louisville style of pizza.The menu features a wide range of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, pasta dishes and calzones. But let’s face it, the name Impellizzeri is synonymous with pizza in this town, and that’s why most of us go. Pizza prices start at $12.99 for a “small” 12-inch original with cheese, enough to feed two or three, and range upward to $38 or $40 for the larger sizes loaded with toppings, enough to feed a small army.Our 12-inch original topped with sausage, peppers and onions ($20.59) was an Impellizzeri classic. Crisp, golden crust was slathered with a surprisingly spicy, thick and textured tomato sauce, crumbled, juicy fennel-scented sausage, a creamy layer of molten mozzarella, fine-chopped onions and crisp green pepper dice. Two of us ate all we could and still took home enough to last for lunch for two more days.Expect a noisy, delighted crowd at Impellizzeri’s and be patient. We got our pizza in about 25 minutes on a busy Wednesday night, but I’ve heard tales of much longer waits. No worries. It’s worth it.Original Impellizzeri’s1381 Bardstown Road454-2711 NibblesSay ‘Buon Giorno’ and ‘Buenos Dias’ to WorldfestAt least 77 languages are spoken in the Louisville public schools, and fully half of the city’s population growth over the past 15 years has come from international residents, city officials say.This growing collection of ethnic communities will all join with the rest of us on the riverfront this month in what’s billed as the state’s largest collection of local ethnic restaurants, vendors and exhibitors, including dozens of food booths.We’ll be there for the food ... and oh yeah, all that other stuff, too. Don’t miss Worldfest, Friday and Saturday, Aug. 31-Sept. 1, from 11 a.m.-11 p.m. on the Belvedere at Fifth and Main streets. Contact the writer at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com