Café Giulia, Lakeville
★★½ [Very Good-Superior]
One look takes me back to an exciting time in my life—when I was writing the national and international print advertising for BMW. “This box cruises at 100 miles per hour—that’s the beauty of it.” Now after tooling along country roads in an ecologically correct Prius, I arrive in Lakeville, where I fall madly in love with a dashing, daring, outrageously romantic Italian racecar parked on the lawn of the restaurant I am about to review.
The object of my affection, a vintage Alfa Romeo Giulia, belongs to a racecar driver who is also the chef-owner of Café Giulia. Two of my favorite things: cars and food. How lucky can I get?
Very lucky, I’m willing to bet even before my friends and I polish off a round of delicious antipasti. We especially like carciofu fritti, matchstick-thin slices of fresh artichoke fried to golden crunchiness and as addictive as junk food; large shrimp roasted with smoked paprika; and the salumi of the day, finocchietto, a soft salami made with cured, unsalted pork belly, flavored with ground fennel seeds, which shares a plate with fresh ricotta and Sicily’s famously non-bitter Castelvetrano olives.
We’re seated at a plain wood table beside a bay window in a small dining room that manages to look both countrified and stylish in a crisp contemporary way. Floors are bare, walls the color of clotted cream. There’s a cool sound system and state-of-the-art lighting that adjusts from dim to bright to match the mood of the day or night.
In the adjoining galley-style open kitchen, chef-owner Robert Willis is moving fast. He’s the one in the black bandanna. He calls his cooking “simple Italian food” and cooks what he says. Not for him elaborate mishmash dishes designed to astound. He goes straight for the flag with no detours. Pollo al mattone (chicken under a brick), one of the oldest recipes in the world and one of the simplest, is a chef Willis specialty—half a chicken, the meat tender and juicy and the skin crackly-crisp. It’s nice to be reminded how good a good chicken can taste on its own, sans breading, battering or panko-crusting.
Italian restaurants in the United States seem to feel obliged to embellish fish with any- and everything in the kitchen. They throw on tomato, fresh or canned, peppers, red or green, mushrooms, garlic, capers, pancetta—until everything tastes the same. In Italy, chefs trust the fish to shine on its own. Café Giulia’s does, too, pan-roasting organic salmon and serving it unadorned but for a shimmer of anchovy butter. A tasty beet risotto and baby spinach round out the plate.
Olive-stuffed pork, with potato artichoke hash alongside, is a little more elaborate and a little less successful. The stuffing is delicious, the pork still tastes like pork but it’s rather dry. Dare we suggest a tad more sauce?
As for rich and creamy, just order Café Giulia’s house-made fettuccine with lemon and parmigiano cream sauce. Add shrimp for $6? Thumbs up on that. If you like shrimp, you’ll love these.
To be successful, simple cooking requires superb ingredients. Hard to come by? Not for Robert Willis, who moved to Connecticut with an A-list of sources collected, culled and curated over the course of many years as a chef in New York, at Chanterelle and Bolo, at Vaux Bistro in Park Slope, at Manna Dew Café in Millerton.
The proof is in the eating. I’ve never had fresher fish. Salads shine. A simple green salad includes baby spinach, radicchio, red endive and arugula, every leaf dewy fresh, highlighted with dried cranberries and toasted almonds, and dressed with a mustard-and-red-wine vinaigrette. Barbabietola stars locally raised beets, yellow and red, setting off their sweetness with the sharp citrus taste of orange segments, salty Gorgonzola and mint.
Servers are friendly, knowledgeable, helpful—and polite enough to conceal their surprise after we glance at the dessert list and airily order one of everything. After all, there are only four and all are homemade. Tiramisu served in a custard cup is more cream than cake but so sinfully seductive we start with a taste and end up eating it all. Chocolate hazelnut torta is almost as crisp as a cookie, intensely chocolate and served with hazelnut gelato and whipped cream. Plain crème caramel arrives instead of the chocolate espresso caramel on the menu but we like it enough not to mind. Olive oil cake is new to my friends and I have a hard time convincing them that it will not taste like olive oil. However, one bite of this orange-scented, not-too-sweet pound-cake-like dessert convinces them that it’s the most interesting and refreshing dessert of all.
At Café Giulia, chef Willis has cooking assistants but he’s clearly the driving force. He likes to shoot the breeze with regular customers and enjoys meeting newcomers, but on a Saturday night when there’s a full house he’s in the kitchen with his eye on the stove. His calm competence inspires confidence. You never get the feeling that working the room is on his to-do list or that a kitchen crisis is likely. I’ve had restaurateurs tell me they’re trying to create a casual atmosphere. At Café Giulia, it’s just there.
329 Main St., Lakeville (860/435-9765; cafegiuliact.com)
Lunch Thursday through Sunday, 11:30 to 3. Dinner every day but Tuesday 5:30 to 9:30. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Beer and wine only. Price range: appetizers $9 to $12, pastas $10 to $19, entrées $20 to $25, desserts $6.50 to $9.