Imagine building a sandwich by pointing at capicolla, genoa salami, mortadella and big wedges of provolone, and pecorino. That was our first visit to the Italian Market, shortly after it opened a few years back. It was glorious and confusing all at the same time. You might wait a half-hour for a sandwich, but damn was it good. You took that first bite and a little olive oil and vinegar came running down your fingers, and then the taste of rich meats and cheeses all melding together. Those days are gone and while we miss the messy fun of the old place, the Café Coco version of the Italian Market is much more professional and still quite good.
The Café Coco folks proudly announce their Italian heritage. They have a reputation for turning out inventive, fun sandwiches at the Elliston area restaurant by the same name. That place is of course a classic for the after bar crowd; a madhouse mash up of Goths, rockers, doctors, and anyone else hankering for good food at a cheap price. The Italian Market is a world different in style. The living room feel of the old place is now more of a relaxed traditional restaurant with a lively order counter. It seems like it is becoming a popular spot. We visited a couple of months ago, when they had just changed hands, and it was relatively quiet. Our latest trip on a Sunday found 20 people in line just after noon. Part of that is due to the Sunday brunch offering. It puts a slight Italian twist to some classics. Eggs Benedict come in classic Florentine spinach and another version with Italian sausage and herb Panini bread. There are omelets, breakfast sandwiches and even pasta Carbonara. Brunch runs 9am to 3pm, but if you’re close to lunch you can also order off the lunch menu.
We decided to mix and match, choosing pasta off the lunch menu and the eggs Florentine off the brunch menu. The Tortellini Elliston comes in a light cream tomato sauce. The pasta is treated with care in cooking and comes up light and delicate with savory cheese inside, which is a nice foil for the tomato sauce. Two narrow slices of their signature Panini bread rest on the edge of the bowl. The bread is airy, toasty and perfect for dipping. There are several pasta dishes to choose from, and a create your own pasta option that allows you to pick between fettuccine, linguine, penne or tortellini and a couple of different sauces and then a range of sautéed ingredients to add in.
The Panini sandwiches include the Lucia: cappicola ham, tomato, spinach and provolone turned gooey in the press and melting into the pesto/mayo spread. It’s a much more delicate sandwich than the predecessors. It’s tasty, albeit a little tame. They may be trying to up the ante. Hero sandwiches are a new part of the lunch menu, promising choices of hot meatball, Italian sausage or classic meats on a six inch sub roll. The lunch menu also has pizzas, entrees such as baked ziti and eggplant parmesan
There are a few sides. The Caesar has fresh greens and a tangy dressing. The pasta salad, though, left us a bit flat. It was not much in the flavor department, just a little oil, vinegar, olives and green peppers.
Veggie Eater: The first time around I sample the Formaggio Panini…it was good, but not as good as the original Italian Market deli sandwiches; it was a bit more fufu and a little less authentic (really, American cheese on an Italian sandwich?). The initial visit also left me panicked as they did not have nearly the same amount of deli and dry goods that the original did; this was a near crisis as the visit was timed to buy all ingredients necessary for the fabled Christmas lasagna. They did not have everything needed, but had most (no whole milk ricotta at that time and they did not have no boil noodles). So, more stops were required to get the other stuff. This is still a great improvement over when we moved here 5 years ago and literally had all lasagna ingredients shipped to us from New York and Boston. On the second visit, we split breakfast and lunch. I enjoyed the Eggs Florentine served on Panini, with fresh sautéed spinach and hollandaise (perhaps a tiny bit too runny) and tortellini (a shade too salty). Not great, but good. The dry food section has improved since our first stop in.
Meat Eater: We paid $28 with tax, tip and a drink for the two brunch entrees and the cheesecake. They’re advertising breakfast each weekday starting at 6am and as the name implies there is an expanding selection of pastas, olive oil and various other items to choose from in the market section. They seemed to have backed off a bit on the cheese selection, but they still have about 10 cheeses to choose from and a variety of meats by the pound. We miss the old messy place but we can’t think of anyone better to have taken over. The Café Coco folks have done a good job with the makeover and a new menu to match.