A reader wrote to recommend Caffé NaVona, and I became convinced that I should visit the second I learned that it is owned in part by the same brothers who own the popular Harlequin Caffé in nearby Wharton. I have always liked the Harlequin Caffé and applauded its dedication to customer satisfaction.
Caffé NaVona is larger than its sibling, comprising three attractive rooms: a formal dining room, an enclosed porch, and a lounge. As you enter the waiting room, a versatile pianist playing an eye-catching grand piano greets you. I'm immediately impressed by the congenial staff, including co-owner Marco DeFilippis. On my first visit, my companion brings a special bottle of wine from her vineyard in Portugal, mistaking Caffé NaVona for a BYO restaurant. Mr. DeFilippis very pleasantly informs us that they do have a liquor license, but generously permits us to open our bottle with dinner. Later we ask him whether the chef ever makes bagna cauda, a hot dip of olive oil, butter, anchovies, and garlic, served with raw vegetables. Minutes later he surprises us with the dip made just for our party--all this while our pleasant waitress, Malgorzata, also offers to make us a special dish from her native Poland. And no, they have no idea who we are, apart from a group of people who obviously enjoy one another's company. How could you not like a restaurant whose staff is so charming and accommodating?
The food here, more inventive than that of many Italian restaurants, includes an impressive list of specials printed with their prices on a separate sheet--almost worth a star in itself. Most of the specials are pretty good too. A lightly spiced crab-cake appetizer, torta di granchio, is delicious although it's drizzled with what looks and tastes suspiciously like ketchup. Grilled sweet Italian sausage with Bolognese sauce proves a worthy accompaniment to homemade polenta.
Among the noteworthy menu appetizers is carpaccio arlecchino, paper-thin raw filet mignon slices served with shaved Reggiano cheese, capers, chopped onions, and olive oil. Lumacchi Alla Navona, snails with wild mushrooms in a red-wine sauce, are also delicious. Capesante volpe, large sea scallops served in a champagne sauce, are toothsome and slightly sweet. But three large shrimp wrapped in proscuitto and basil leaves and served over spinach are too salty.
All pastas can be ordered as half portions. Try the fettuccine with pancetta, onions, and peas in a cream sauce, or the risotto of the day, which in this instance, prepared with gorgonzola and mushrooms, is creamy and firm.
Entrées, all served with a nice salad, include a very good special of sirloin steak au poivre, a tender pepper steak with a cognac-and-cream sauce studded with shiitake mushrooms. Veal saltimbocca with prosciutto and sage in a lemon-butter sauce is absolutely delicious and very tender. Red snapper, also a special, served in a tomato-seafood broth with littleneck clams, is quite good. A loin of pork with black beans, though, is dry, as is a special of chicken tenderloins wrapped around asparagus spears; thankfully the latter is dressed in a lemon-garlic sauce. Zuppa di pesci consists of the predictable array of shellfish in a standard tomato broth served over pasta.
Desserts are worth saving room for. The tiramisù perfectly exemplifies how this dessert should be prepared, as does the warm apple cake dressed with cinnamon-custard sauce and beautifully presented with a swirl of caramel on the plate. White-chocolate mousse served with raspberries in Chambord tastes as good as it looks, and cheesecake topped with sour-cream mousse is excellent. Avoid the dense tropical flan, the dry chocolate cake with chocolate ganache, and the lackluster flourless chocolate cake. -- V.S.
147 Route 46, Rockaway (973-627-1606). Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 am to 3 pm. Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 4 to 9:30 pm; Friday and Saturday, 4 to 10:30 pm; Sunday, 4 to 9 pm. Wheelchair access easy. American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two without wine averages $70.