If Italian comfort food in an elegant surrounding is your desire Cafe Parco, in Madison Park may fill the bill.
Denizens of Madison Park may have lost their “unofficial Jewish mother” when Karen Binder closed Madison Park Cafe last year, but they’ve gained an Italian mama — or at least Celinda Norton cooks like one.
Norton is the new proprietor of the cozy clapboard cottage Binder vacated after 32 years. Now called Cafe Parco, it’s dressed to the hilt in ruby satin with touches of gilt, like a box of Valentine chocolates, or a mini-
salon in a Venetian palazzo. Old master reproductions adorn chianti-colored walls; tapestries hang in the restrooms. Well-dressed patrons converse in normal tones across linen-layered tables graced with fresh bouquets and boudoir lamps.
Norton’s son, Nicolas, or daughter, Lindsey, will likely greet you at the door, offer to take your coat and show you to a table, with menus and a wine list tucked in the crook of an arm. The former is a single sheet printed just before service every day; the latter is a 16-page book with a black velvet cover and a gold tassel.
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Wine is Norton’s passion. Her cellar, carried over from her previous restaurant, 94 Stewart, boasts notable French, Italian and Northwest labels, but few options under $50. I observed at least one table bringing their own bottles (permitted if the wine is not on the list), preferring to pay the $20 corkage.
Waiters here wouldn’t look out of place at Downton Abbey in their black vests, silk ties and ankle-length striped aprons. Ours is courteous and correct, conversant with the wines and familiar with the menu. Only one dish stumped him: Manila clams with cabbage, white beans and sottocenere al tartufo, a truffle-flecked Italian cheese. “To be honest,” he said, “I haven’t seen it. It just went on today. The chef gets an idea that sounds good and she goes with it.”
Norton is a creative cook who seasons and sauces with gusto; she can be fearless in pairing flavors. Fresh capellini wears an audacious mix of cheeses — not only sottocenere but also Parmesan, provolone and tallegio — and it works. The creamy, ultrarich sauce could so easily have overburdened the delicate pasta, yet it settled like silk, brought to earth by the whiff of truffle.
She loads bruschetta with white beans, roasted tomato, fried sage leaves, prosciutto and grated cheese. It’s a bit unwieldy to eat, but it tastes great. Her lovely “Insalata alla Griglia” couples a grilled, lemon-dressed romaine heart and warm radicchio tossed with pancetta and balsamic vinegar.
Rum added panache to pudgy medallions of pork tenderloin cooked to a moist and springy medium doneness. Yo ho ho and a further salute to its platemates: sautéed mushrooms with bacon and herbs, and roasted red potatoes.
Manicotti filled with spinach and ricotta were a platform for slices of smoked duck breast in a sauce of apricot, sage, walnuts and honey. The sweetness played well against the smoke and cheese; unfortunately the tubular pasta shell was as brittle as tree bark.
Pollo con pancetta was a dismal, gray stew of boneless chicken, button mushrooms, parsnips and white beans. In its place another night were marvelous Chianti-braised beef cheeks with turnips finely diced and cooked like risotto with Parmesan and herbs. The meat could not have been more tender or delicious, but the turnips were practically afloat in the flood of red wine gravy.
The tide was quickly stemmed with thick slices of salty, rosemary-scented bread, chunks of which also made a fine sponge for the garlicky, sausage-speckled broth in a bowl of steamed clams. Norton isn’t the bread-maker but the dessert tray offers evidence of her baking prowess: the salted caramel tart is not to be missed.
Cafe Parco attracts young and old. I noticed a quartet of girlfriends not long out of their teens celebrating a birthday; a foursome of parents trading school gossip; a gray-haired couple lingering over wine. A solo woman twirled pappardelle absorbed in her iPad; a solitary man fiddled with his iPhone between courses.
Swept away by the romance of the room, I hoped in vain to see eyes lock, smiles exchanged, maybe even texts ignored.
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