Caffe Delle Stelle means "cafe of the stars." It's a popular dinner spot for opera-, ballet-, and symphony-goers, since the location is convenient and the prices are kind to culture-stressed wallets. When a couple of my friends recently told me that the Caffe's tiramisu was "out of this world," I rocketed off in its direction. My timing was fortuitous: Although Delle Stelle is often jammed on performance nights, the early curtains for the Nibelung trilogy kept the Wagnerian riffraff off the streets, so getting a table was no problem.
The Caffe is a classic trattoria, an Italian bistro in which pots and pans hang on the walls next to big, bright posters. On a divider shelf separating the dining room from the kitchen, industrial-size Illy espresso tins stand guard in alternate ranks with ruby-throated long-neck Chianti bottles. Accompanying the whir of the espresso machine and the normal thuds and bangs from the kitchen, an odd melange of Italian music genres plays rather loudly -- one minute it's "La Donna e Mobile," the next it's a sax-y "One Night of Sin," the New Orleans take on "O Sole Mio." Even with sparse attendance, the Caffe sounds like a full house.
The food choices, too, follow trattoria traditions, with some bent toward tomato-rich Neapolitan cooking. In authentic fashion, pastas are more plentiful, varied, and elaborate than meat-based entrees. Less classically, the menu (dated December 98) is set, with no seasonal variations, and even the nightly specials are oddly blind to the moment's best produce. In summer, for instance, the Caffe offers a wintry appetizer of fagottini ($6.50), cabbage purses stuffed with smoked mozzarella, dressed with a dark, weighty mushroom sauce. I respected it, but would have enjoyed it more in January. And even in winter the kitchen hazards a pasta "cruda" ($8.50), with an uncooked sauce that would seem to demand the freshest herbs and ripest tomatoes.
All meals begin with a fresh, garlicky tomato puree to spread on the strangely bland and mushy house Italian bread. Improved somewhat by a light toasting, the same bread is the base for bruschetta ($4.25), another dish that's only as good as its tomatoes -- and last week, the spate of diced tomatoes couldn't have been sweeter.
The tightly knit "Cesare" salad ($5/$6.50) brought another blast of vegetative freshness, with a sparse, finely balanced dressing over hearts of romaine (and, happily, a minimum of croutons) dusted with precisely the right amount of fresh-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Perhaps it's a holdover from the moral imperatives of the Roman Empire (in its good early days), but both these starters epitomized Italy's culinary spareness, which dresses up stellar produce or pasta just enough to emphasize its intrinsic glory.
In contrast, another night's signature Delle Stelle salad ($5/$6.50) of spring greens with Gorgonzola and walnuts was aswim in a very American river of balsamic dressing. And like some slim mortal lad fending off a buxom Valkyrie's advances, the tender, subtle, paper-thin raw beef of the carpaccio ($6.25) was swamped by an overgenerous pour of aggressively fruity extra-virgin oil.
The must-eat appetizer here is a rich, earthy polenta ($6.50), a portion generous enough that it might serve as a lunch for two. The lavishly buttered cornmeal is topped with chewy little meatballs, meaty tomato sauce from the house osso buco, and butter-sauteed porcini. Another spectacular dish, this one from the pasta choices, is pasticcio ($9), a thin, semicrisp calzonelike pastry crust filled with ziti (tube pasta similar to rigatoni), eggplant, tomato, and wonderfully smoky melted mozzarella.
The other pastas we tried proved as fickle as the appetizers. The variations weren't just from dish to dish, or night to night -- there were inconsistencies within a single dish! Take the zuccati ($9), house-made ravioli with a rich pumpkin-ricotta filling. Some ravioli were well-stuffed, while others were nearly all dough with hardly any pumpkin. The celadon-hued spinach pasta pillows, dressed in clarified butter with fried sage leaves and minced parsley, were utterly delicious when adequately filled, but seemed stodgy when the pumpkin was stingy. Even more antic was guazzetto ($9), spaghetti with shrimp and asparagus in lemon cream sauce: Some of the shrimp and some of the asparagus pieces were distinctly overcooked, while some of the spaghetti was sticky from undercooking. What this careless kitchen clearly needs is a dedicated stirrer.
The entrees were intelligent in design but -- guess what -- mixed in execution. When you see "Arista of pork" ($13) on the menu, you'll probably envision Tuscany's ascetic rosemary-rubbed roast loin. Delle Stelle's version isn't austere: It's a double-thick roasted chop, topped with a gingery poached pear and an exceedingly mild Roquefort sauce. The meat was, alas, cooked cardboardy dry.
Pollo ($11.50) was a very pleasant combination of half a tender grilled baby chicken, sauced with sauteed tomatoes, herbs, and bottled Cara Mia marinated artichoke hearts. It's not exactly the restaurant's fault if some hearts were tender while others were woody, a frequent occurrence with this brand. We also tried a special of Neapolitan-style grilled filet mignon medallion sauced with pancetta, coffee essence, and white wine ($13.50). Like all of its kind, the filet was fork-tender and nearly tasteless; I'd have preferred a heartier cut to play up the interesting sauce. Both meat dishes came with the blandest pureed potatoes this side of the Atlantic. (I must confess I've met their match in several European countries.)
The wine list is a single-spaced page of selections on the back of the menu, with approximately equal portions of Italian and Californian choices, most in the mid-$20s (about double retail), maxing out at $55 for the Fattoria dei Barbi's superb Brunello di Montalcino. Each bottle gets a sentence of vividly appetizing if slightly technical oenological description.
And how is that fabled tiramisu ($4.50), you wonder? Well, it really is heavenly, a perfect balance of cocoa, mascarpone, and whipped cream over a thin, melting bottom layer of slightly rummy coffee-moistened spongecake. (In fact, it closely resembles the flawless tiramisu at Ristorante Milano, which probably started the local craze for the dessert.) There's no creative silliness -- just the right amounts of the right stuff in a stellar configuration.
For that matter, none of the food here is creatively silly. The whole menu is sane, interesting, and affordable. But when a dish (or some part of a dish) fails, the kitchen's work isn't like the aging Callas aiming for high C and falling an eighth-tone short. It's more like a stoical regional opera veteran, indubitably talented and hard-working -- but a little too resigned to the occasional clam tone.