By Frank Sabatini Jr. | SDUN Food Critic
The subtitle for Calabria on its menu reads: “Barcaffe-Vineria-Pizzeria.” Prominent signage above the front doors, however, designates the space simply as “Caffe Calabria,” which beckons to the past several years when the address operated primarily as a coffeehouse and roaster. It still does, but as of five months ago, the concept has expanded without the hype it deserves.
Now, the redolence of yeasty pizza dough wafting from a 1,000-degree wood-fired oven plays up to the invigorating aromas of lattes and cappuccinos. The essence is further enhanced by bright-red sauce hailing from fleshy San Marzano tomatoes, as well as other fine toppings that show us the meaning of true Neapolitan-style pizzas.
After making dozens of trips to Italy, owner Arnie Holt said the time was ripe for capturing the Italian café culture in its most complete form. Meaning that where there is coffee there is wine, and more often than not good food constructed with simple, wholesome ingredients.
Holt’s pizzeria offshoot arrives 20 years after he introduced Calabria beans from coffee carts in local hospitals. Being from Seattle, he recalls that “nobody down here knew back then what a latte was.” Eventually, he purchased the North Park building with his sister and successfully established the café and adjoining roasting facility. For patrons accustomed to early-day caffeine jolts at Calabria, they can duly return at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays through Sundays, when the curvy, tiled pizza oven kicks into action.
The café’s long, narrow space resembles an alleyway off some main square in any Italian city, a fitting come-on to the salumi boards and calzones also annexed onto the evening menu. Most of the trappings are imported from the mother country, such as the entire wine and coffee bar, a weighty prosciutto slicer and copper olive oil dispensers placed on the tables. Most remarkable is the row of tall, leafy trees stretching from end to end and kept alive through rotating visits to the front windows. I’m not sure how or when they’re moved, but the aesthetic payoff is rewarding.
Visiting with a friend who was as equally unsuspecting of the top-quality meal we’d experience, a caprese salad proved the first flavor rush with fat slices of colored heirloom tomatoes encircling a generous plop of ultra-creamy burrata cheese. Olive oil and fresh basil clenched the deal, putting all other caprese constructs to shame.
Salumi misti came next, an expansive board loaded with eight little heaps of various dry-cured meats, including Parma prosiutto, halved figs, subtlety sharp Grana cheese and excellent green olives. The board currently sells for $12, but odds are high that it will climb a few bucks given its vast assortment.
Pizza choices extend to about 14 different types; three of them “white pizzas” that include the must-try carbonara. Memories of my grandfather’s asparagus frittata came to mind as I chomped down on the vegetable along with pancetta, more Grana and a medium-cooked egg that you spread around the top before digging in. Our other pick was a pepperoni pie pockmarked with buffalo mozzarella. This was no Plain Jane, thanks to spicy secretions of the meat oozing into the unadulterated puree of canned tomatoes from San Marzano outside of Naples.
The prized tomato sauce and buffalo mozzarella are among the requirements for making authentic
Neapolitan pizza. In addition, the dough must be hand-formed and constructed from finely ground flour, designated as “00.” And the pizzas must cook in two minutes or less in a wood-fired oven reaching at least 905 degrees Fahrenheit. Holt’s claim that he adheres to all of the above is difficult to dispute once you start eating the stuff.
Calabria’s wine list is also fiercely Italian, with Chianti, Sangiovese, Barbera, Toscana band other regional varietals accessible at under $35 a bottle. Though make sure your eyesight is sharper than a hawk’s before springing for the five-liter Vin Perdu, priced at a whopping $2,300.
Tiramisu and cannoli go missing from the dessert menu—too ordinary for Holt’s vicarious “barcaffé” romp through Italy. Instead, we find mini calzones filled with Nutella and hazelnut pieces, as well as super-refreshing peach sorbetto stuffed into its natural fruit shells. Or if you can’t push down more food, a robust honey latte will sufficiently please your sugar sensors.
The irony behind Calabria’s authentic Italian food and convincing Italian ambiance is that they’re delivered by a Seattle native with Norwegian roots. “But I have an Italian soul,” he proclaimed as we came away with the understanding that coffeeroasting and pizza-making get along quite well when they’re put under one roof.