Mid-August Lunch, wispy dramedy, not rated, in Italian with subtitles, The Screen, 3.5 chiles
Ah, summer. ’ Tis the season of bright, blistering afternoons when we rush to see the latest Hollywood tent pole — not necessarily because we really care about the movie but because we can benefit from the multiplex’s dimmed lights and air conditioning for a couple of hours.
Made in Italy and released in 2008, this sweet, short movie is known in its native land as Pranzo di Ferragosto, Ferragosto being the mid-August holiday that has been celebrated in Italy since the days of the Roman Empire. With that in mind, think about a meal you’d enjoy on a sweltering August afternoon: light and simple, maybe a little sweet, with something bubbly in your glass. You could use many of those adjectives to describe Mid-August Lunch. It lasts barely over an hour, so you won’t get much of an air-conditioned break out of it, but it offers a different kind of refreshment.
Like so many single men in Italy, schlubby Gianni (writer-director Gianni Di Gregorio, who was one of the writers on the mafia drama Gomorrah) lives with his mother (Valeria De Franciscis). The 50-something Roman bachelor is apparently unemployed, but he works full time as his mother’s caretaker and cook. One August
Eric DiStefano, one of Santa Fe’s renowned chefs, has owned Coyote Café and its outside bar, Coyote Cantina, since 2007. It came with a massive reputation, Mark Miller having set the style for new Southwestern cuisine. The tradition continues at the Cantina — sort of — with dishes that make a passing reference to Mexico but don’t really have a lot of flavor. However, people love Coyote Cantina, where there’s a fiesta every evening. Partying 20-and 30-somethings and tourists flock to the rooftop to get rowdy and enjoy the summer weather.
The wait staff is enthusiastic and efficient. The staffers know the menu and the drinks, and they hustle. However, most of the food is uninspired, heavy pub fare. All the right ingredients are there; they just don’t add up to delicious.
Generally, appetizers fare better than main courses do. The guacamole and housemade tortilla chips with the fire-roasted salsa are a delicious classic rendition that deserves applause. The spicy wedge salad tasted good, but the composition was careless and the presentation needed improvement. Wilted wedges of iceberg lettuce sprinkled with Cotija cheese crumbles were served with large slices of mealy tomato, a tart vinegar-and-oil dressing, and a tasty green-chile tempura on the side.
Mild and creamy shrimp, crab, and tomato soup loaded with seafood came with a grilled cheese and poblano sandwich. Aside from the chile and the partially melted cheese, the sandwich reminded me of the kind we used to order at the corner drugstore. The plate’s a bargain: filling, but without much flavor. A very good plump Mexican white shrimp ceviche sparked with red onion, celery, avocados, and radishes came with a side of that trademark fire-roasted salsa and those great chips.
The vegetarian tacos could have been phoned in; they’re a great example of how chefs often disregard vegetarians’ need for interesting, well-prepared dishes. A make-it-yourself platter came with mozzarella chunks, sun-dried tomatoes, salad, basil leaves, avocado, and yellow tomatoes to wrap in tough, thick, grilled flour tortillas. This is a dish that didn’t work on any level.
Baja-style fish tempura tacos were problematic, too. They needed the creamy white sauce that traditionally adorns them in Mexico. The battered mahi-mahi pieces had been purposefully mashed to nestle in the folded tortillas. It was visually unappetizing, and I just have to wonder why it was done. The tacos needed some pico de gallo, too, because the soft mango-lime salsa lacked zip. Hot Pig — chipotle-and agave-basted sticky pork tenderloin with crispy fried polenta, scallion tempura, and Tidewater coleslaw — was also a study in mediocrity; greasy polenta is always a travesty.
The Cubaña is Cantina’s signature Cuban sandwich. (Cubaña is not a Spanish word. Cubana is. But again, who’s paying attention to details?) Regardless of the name, the sandwich was good: heavy with smoked ham, asadero cheese, chipotle sauce, black-bean spread, and guacamole, sided with “salad verde” (is this a fun Spanglish name?), excellent fries, and homemade spicy ketchup.
Cantina’s mixed drinks are excellent. The Brazilian daiquiri harks back to the early Coyote Café, when a huge glass barrel of it moldered on the bar. Made with dark rum, piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar), and pineapple, it packs a wallop. A delicious prickly pear margarita, girly with its bright fuchsia color and sweetness, contrasted with the interesting margarita del Maguey, in which the mezcal came through loud and clear.
Desserts from the café include a luscious, creamy, and pineapple-y tres leches cake. The regulation espresso brownie with macerated strawberries and blueberries came with a scoop of ice cream. The trio of ice-cream sandwiches, made with tough chocolate cookies, hadn’t had time to soften up from contact with the ice cream and didn’t really work. The mango ice cream was icy and underflavored compared with the strawberry passion fruit ice cream. We left the sad, wrinkled blueberries on the side. Cold rice pudding with three caramelized banana slices were a great combination, but the rice pudding was insipid, and we soon ran out of bananas.
Our visit to Coyote Cantina was disappointing. Serving great cocktails and heavy bar food seems to be the extent of the ambitions for this venue. ◀
girls: Maria Calì, left, and Valeria De Franciscis