The Italian job
This is a place that’s sincerely trying to become a dependable neighborhood favorite. You’ll pick up a good vibe.
My not-too-original rule of thumb about Italian restaurants is to look for small ones, since you have a better chance of finding excellent ingredients and fresh pasta at places that don’t crank out as much food as, say, an Olive Garden. By that standard, Café Grazie looks promising. It’s a quiet little spot squeezed into a faux-dobe commercial plaza on Zafarano Drive, in the middle of the big-box shopping savannah that’s home to stores like Target and Ross. Take a seat in the spare interior — there are just over a dozen tables and booths, white-clothed and comfortable — and you’ll pick up a good vibe. This is a place that’s sincerely trying to become a dependable neighborhood favorite.
That starts with the service, which involves frequent (perhaps too much so for some, but I liked it) check-ins by your waiter and the restaurant’s friendly host. There are slight variations in the lunch and dinner menus, but neither is especially large: The dinner version offers several appetizers, salads, pasta dishes, “grill” entrees, and a few desserts. Most of the dishes are old standbys, including fried calamari, Caprese salad, linguine Alfredo, meat lasagna, and tiramisu. There’s no beer and wine on offer, which could be based on a wise business decision: If the restaurant succeeds, the alcohol license can follow. I hope so, anyway — the food here is rich and heavy enough that I yearned for a glass of wine.
One downside of small restaurants is that, sometimes, supporting-cast food like salad and bread will turn up on multiple dishes, and that happens here. For example, whether you order a starter salad or get an app or entree that has salad as part of the deal, chances are good you’ll see the same handful of mixed greens every time, a dull medley that’s differentiated only by the addition of ingredients like jicama, sliced carrots, and tomato. You’ll also see quite a few pieces of “tostato” — toast made from wide slices of coarse Italian bread, moistened with oil and seasoned with garlic. It’s decent stuff, but alternatives would be nice.
A looming question in restaurants like this is whether they’re making their own pasta. I can’t say, since I didn’t enter Café Grazie’s kitchen, but my guess would be that some of the pasta is created on site, some isn’t. With one entree we tried, portobello mushroom ravioli, the pasta was tender enough that it seemed like the real made-from-scratch thing. But the rubbery, crinkly noodles in another dish we tried, the vegetarian lasagna, did not.
On a visit for dinner, we started with two appealing salads: Caprese and goat cheese. Caprese is a classic summertime combo. It’s not summer in Santa Fe yet, so the tomatoes — wherever they hailed from — were too firm and not sweet enough. The mozzarella was also a little stiff. You should be able to handle this salad with the side of a fork. This one required sawing with a butter knife. The goat cheese salad was good, with a base of spinach instead of mixed greens, along with pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh tomato, cucumber, balsamic vinegar, and a garlicky sauce on top of a hunk of creamy, tasty goat cheese. For the main event, I tried the stuffed grilled chicken with polenta. The chicken was nice: three pieces of breast meat had been whapped flat, wrapped around spinach-cheese filling, then seared. These were served with good sautéed vegetables (carrots, zucchini, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts) and a big disc of polenta, though the latter was overcooked, almost to the point of being bready.
We tried a spicy, foamy chai tea latte (thumbs up) and the portobello ravioli (thumbs sideways). We liked the pasta but thought the mushroom filling was skimpy and found the sage-flecked white sauce that covered the whole thing a little thin and bland. We wrapped things up by sharing tiramisu and vanilla gelato with caramel sauce. The tiramisu was great — soft, moist, and rich. The gelato was all right, though the vanilla flavor was hard to detect.
Our lunch visit wasn’t as good overall. We started with a house salad and a Mediterranean shrimp salad. They were essentially the same thing — the mixed greens starred in both — made different by the addition of five roasted, too-chewy shrimp. My dining companion tried the linguine Alfredo, which used that same bland white sauce. I had the vegetarian lasagna, which was also a little boring. The vegetables (spinach, zucchini, yellow squash, onion) shed a lot of water. The red sauce between layers didn’t add enough tomato-and-herb depth to restore much flavor.
But would I go back? Yep. Café Grazie isn’t hitting the mark every time, but they’ve got the right spirit. It’s worth watching and waiting to see how this place develops.