Just before noon on a Friday, the mall is not yet teeming the way it will be when the locals are freed from their offices and make their ways to dinner, drinks, and Fridays after Five, but the usual midday cast are milling around. Two young men belt soulful indie-folk, paying refreshingly little attention to the dollars and dimes that trickle from the pockets of passersby into an upside-down fedora between the buskers. German tourists browse through new releases at New Dominion. A woman peddles light, brightly printed scarves. The sunshine dapples splendidly through the willow oaks. And in the midst of it all, familiar red and white checked tables sit, set, waiting, and welcoming.
Welcoming really is the predominant vibe of Sal’s Caffe Italia. Joe and Jenn, the brother-sister duo that run the thirty year old family establishment, have cultivated a comforting ambiance. The traditional checked tablecloths and family photos blend beautifully with the bricked storefront and open kitchen space. It’s the sort of place where one feels immediately comfortable- and Joe is the sort of chef one can immediately trust. As such, we didn’t peruse the extensive lunch menu, but instead sat down to try a few favorites.
The meal began with a Caprese salad, the sumptuously fresh mozzarella nestled between thick slices of heirloom tomato and a blanket of fresh basil piled with cherry tomatoes. The cherry tomatoes, marinated in a slightly sweet balsamic, were a fresh twist on this favorite dish. Also new on the plate were tender, mildly nutty artichoke hearts that finished the dish with gusto.
Along with the Caprese, Joe brought out a plate of their Calamari, lightly but not overwhelmingly fried, served with a marinara dipping sauce that mingled tantalisingly with the generous pour of house Chardonnay. (Though it mingled suspiciously well with the Pinot Gris as well, leading me to the assumption that Sal’s sauce may be the perfect pairing. Will have to return to test more wines.)
As the lunch hour struck, a steady stream of customers entered. Even with a fairly full restaurant, the buzz of conversation remained unobtrusive. Pairs and small groups comprised most of the lunch crowd, although Sal’s is one of the best options on the mall for large parties. The Italian eatery offers one of the only true family style menus with three or five course menu options and is spacious enough to easily accommodate a large group. This easy balance between intimate dining and large parties is emblematic of the restaurant’s convivial vibe.
Critic and Journalist William Grimes has a theory on restaurant ratings that seems more than appropriate here. Grimes writes “If you went to see a movie with a friend or your partner, and went to a meal afterwards at a restaurant, if you’re eating at a one-star restaurant, you’re mostly talking about the movie you just saw. At a two-star restaurant, it’s 50/50? Three-star restaurant, you don’t even remember the movie, you’re just talking about the food.”
We didn’t see a movie before Sal’s, but if we had, I can imagine that any conception of plot or character would be wiped immediately out of the conversation. The Nina (shrimp, sun-dried tomato, and artichoke) with a base of homemade pappardelle tossed in delectable pink lady sauce, was the real star of the afternoon. The pappardelle seemed to evanesce as we chewed, making what could have been a really heavy dish into one that was filling, but not exhausting. Along with the Nina, Joe brought us a warm bacon and blue cheese salad (spinach, applewood smoked bacon, red onion, blue cheese, pine nuts, and a light, house-made caesar) which immediately skyrocketed to the top of my salads list. As Viktoria, our waitress, remarked: “It’s the only way I eat spinach now.”
Grimes believes that at a good restaurant “you’re just talking about the food.” I think he stops a little short. Over the Nina, we were not just talking about the food. Conversation wove effusively around the dish and was dominated by a real sense of belonging- what food is, how eating ought to be enjoyed, and what it means to be in the business of serving one’s community, family, and friends. Sal’s food is objectively delicious, and I’ve woken up an embarrassing number of times since our meal with the craving for pink lady and pappardelle twirling on my tongue. But the magic of Sal’s is in the way the food opens up possibilities beyond what’s on the plate. The mantra of Sal’s is “Food, Family, Tradition,” and to eat at their tables is to be welcomed into that thirty year legacy of nourishment, community, and love.
To steal a line from the Caffe- Grazie Mille, Sal’s. I can’t wait to come back.