Garden City Center (Route 2), Cranston
Open Sun-Thurs, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
Thereís an inevitability to the success of a place like Café Luna, or so I like to think. When they really care in the kitchen and there are enough hungry people passing by who know good food ó in this case, Garden City Center shoppers spilling out of the nearby William-Sonoma cooking toy store ó you hope that the dance of cooks and customers goes on forever.
Well, the gourmet gavotte has been going on here since the early 1980s, when former Panache chef Donna Ventilato opened the doors with partner Diane Vincent. The original nearby place was tiny, with only a couple of tables and mostly take-out and catering business.
Nowadays, Café Luna is roomy, with a deli case harking back to the take-out-only days. Various brands of olive oil line two high shelves, like beer bottles at a sports bar. There is plenty of seating out on the patio for sunshine dining, but when we arrived about 6 p.m. we ate inside for the company, although the patio was packed by the time we left.
Dense slices of white peasant bread soon arrived with our wine, of which an even two dozen are available by the glass. The napkins are paper and the butter pats are in little containers, but one look at the menu shows that diners reap the savings. Café Lunaís signature half-chicken, herbed and roasted, is a ridiculous $8.50 at lunch and only two dollars more as an evening special.
The café made an early reputation with its pizzas. No fewer than 16 varieties were offered at lunch on the day of our visit, we were informed. I wanted to remind myself about their classic three-cheese ($7.50), the only pizza on the menu every day. The fontina gives character to the mozzarella, and the sprinkling of Parmesan goes along happily for the ride on the thin crust. But the best part, besides the slivers of fresh basil, is the sauce, a happy medley of acidity and sweetness. The marinara is available to go for $4.89 a jar and is well worth the premium. Likewise, if you canít stop eating the chicken escarole soup on the permanent menu, it and the soup of the day are available for $4 a pint or $6 a quart.
You know a place is run by foodies, rather than business people, when agreeable little details like this start adding up. The chalkboard brags that the caféís coffee is roasted daily in Providence (at Mills Coffee Company, on Broad Street). A wedge of lime, instead of lemon, comes with the seafood.
If you havenít had the antipasto here, donít miss it. And if youíre sharing with someone, donít make the mistake of ordering the two for one. The single-person size ($7.50) is plenty, and with soup would make a nice lunch for two. The mixed greens come with enough prosciutto for a sandwich, with plenty of big chunks of sharp provolone, marinated mushrooms and artichoke hearts, and pitted black olives that actually have discernable flavor. Donít fight over the wonderfully creamy deviled egg, just order another for half a buck.
Café Luna is big on salads, with eight on the regular menu and two others as the sole appetizers on the specialsí menu during our visit. The main dishes that evening totaled 13. Meat lovers could have filet mignon with a Chianti reduction glaze ($21), or a grilled pork chop under a cider-balsamic glaze ($14). Seafood fans were offered baked tilapia with an interesting sounding fresh pineapple and cucumber salsa ($14), and roasted salmon ($15).
The sea scallops ($16) appealed to Johnnie, and they were a treat. Each flavor component of the citrus, soy, and ginger-butter complementing the pan-seared scallops came through. Another taste treat was the asparagus in the risotto. I had the baked asparagus-lemon pasta ($13), and those two flavors were in scrumptious and velvety balance. It was prepared macaroni and cheese-style ó baked until very soft. More than a couple of the penne-size ribbed pipes on top would have been welcome for crunchy contrast, and the drowning quantity of butter was too much even for a cholesterol hound like myself.
We ordered two items from the very tempting dessert tray, all made off-site by Bruce Johnson. From símores torte to carrot cake, they all appeared good, but the pear tart ($5) looked best to me ó and it tasted exquisite, this time appropriately buttery. Johnnie had a chocolate-almond biscotto ($2), and as well as being delicious, it was firm without leaving the impression, as biscotti usually do, that it could strike sparks from steel.
Café Luna, I lift my espresso cup to you.
Bill Rodriguez can be reached at billrod@ reporters.net