John and I are big fans of Fellini films. Really big fans. And I am almost certain that John secretly wishes he were Marcello Mastroianni, peering coolly over his shades, dressed to kill. So it made perfect sense when waiting for a table at Revel’s Lugo Caffe to sit at the bar, order a prosecco, strike a cool pose, and wait for the inexplicable marching band to parade through.
Lugo Caffe is unapologetically stylized. Simple, understated furnishings, sleek lighting and black and white pictures of 1960’s Rome grace the walls. It’s fun, bustling-all the trappings of the traditional caffes of Rome. And though John and I got a kick out of simply being there, we were skeptical; after all, no matter how sexy an Italian restaurant is, we are leery of anything that doesn’t measure up to Grandma Fusco’s cooking.
Since it was opening day at Revel and we had been sampling goodies to report on all afternoon, we weren’t in the mood to eat heavily. That didn’t stop us from ordering a Kobe meatball with polenta to start, however. It simply melted in our mouths, as you would expect, but it had all of the richness and juiciness of Kobe beef. As if that weren’t enough, it was lightly sauced in a garlicky sugo, and nestled atop a creamy polenta. Perfetto. I also went with our server’s suggestion of enjoying a glass of Babera d’Alba (Piedmonte 2009) with my meal. By itself it was a decent red wine; but when paired with food it seemed to blossom, the cherry and spice flavors blending beautifully with whatever it was matched with. Bravo. Next time, we’ll be looking to order the housemade “mozzarella bar” which includes embellishments like “Semplice” (sea salt and extra virgin olive oil), “Caprese”(tomatoes, fresh basil, and balsamic glaze) and “pepperoncini” (sopressata, fire-roasted peppers, and Kalamata olives).
For an entree, John went with the Cioppino; clams, mussels, squid, octopus, and shrimp swam in a light, flavorful tomato broth. Besides being delicious, we were impressed by how moist and tender the octopus was, showing the skill of the kitchen. But the highlight of it all was the Veal Pasta with Oxtail Sauce. Soft, downy pillows of pasta were infused with a veal reduction, then dressed with a slowly simmered, incredibly rich and meaty oxtail sauce. The portions were smaller than what you find at most Italian-American restaurants, and I was grateful for it: I easily consumed everything on the plate, and could have eaten more. So much for a “light” meal…
The only drawback we found that evening was the service. It was, for the most part, friendly and courteous, to be sure. But it was far from expert or confident. The host we first encountered was overwhelmed and snippy, the bartender efficient and coldly cordial. Our waitress was very warm and friendly, but only marginally knowledgeable about the menu. The manager was gracious enough to check on all the tables, though, making sure everyone was happy. We happened to be there on the very night Revel opened- as they were the only full-service, sit-down eatery open and fully operational that evening, it’s easy to imagine how they may be uncertain and overwhelmed. It remains to be seen as to what the staff will be like a few months from now.
You’re not going to find any cutting-edge Italian cuisine here, but I don’t think you’re meant to. It’s a brief, bustling, delicious taste of the la dolce vita fantasy that Americans have with all things Roma. Surrender to that when you walk in, and you won’t be disappointed. Ciao, bella!