In with the old: Caffe Bocce is an Italian throwback just off the Downtown Mall

AT THE TABLE

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Caffe Bocce’s chef-owner Christopher Long eschews gimmicks in favor of a formula that relies on fresh ingredients and warm hospitality. Photo: John Robinson Caffe Bocce’s chef-owner Christopher Long eschews gimmicks in favor of a formula that relies on fresh ingredients and warm hospitality. Photo: John Robinson

For as long as I can remember, food has been my passion. I feel fortunate to have lived through the food renaissance our country has experienced over the last few decades. In taking over the reins of this C-VILLE column, I hope to do my small part to document the effects of that renaissance here in Charlottesville.

For the most part, its effects have been positive. Now that food is king, customers, chefs, and purveyors are more knowledgeable and daring than ever before. The renaissance has improved the quality and variety of food accessible to the average consumer. Yet, today’s food-centric culture has had its casualties, too—perhaps the most common being a lost focus on customers. If food is king, customers are not. Thus, for some chefs, a negative review on a restaurant website means a shortcoming in the reviewer, not the restaurant.

Caffe Bocce, which opened in November on Market Street, seems largely immune to these effects. After closing nearly a decade ago in Scottsville, it reappeared in Charlottesville, as if the lost years had never happened. To walk into Caffe Bocce is to enter a time capsule—a place where Mom and Dad would go on Saturday night while the kids stayed home with pizza and a sitter.

No recent food trends appear. There is no molecular gastronomy, no foam, and no list of purveyors. In fact, there is no mention at all of “local,” “organic,” “artisan”—or any of the other latest buzzwords. Don’t you have anything with Pork belly? Or Pop Rocks?

Nope. At Caffe Bocce, the menu simply lists the choices, and the customer is still king. White cloths drape the tables, Miles Davis sets the mood, and servers greet guests at the door with warm offers to hang their coats.

This is largely by design, says chef-owner Christopher Long, who instead of chasing ever-changing fads, keeps his focus where it has always been: on the experience of his guests. His mission at Caffe Bocce is simple. “Improve lives,” he said.

This people-focused approach derives in part from Long’s philosophy. “I just live one day at a time trying to do something for someone else,” said Long, who once served as Scottsville’s mayor and is known for inviting children to cook in the restaurant kitchen. It also stems from decades in restaurant service, including many years as maître d’ at a classic Italian-American restaurant, where the servers were tuxedo-clad professionals who needed their earnings to raise families, not college students seeking beer money.

When former Scottsville regulars learned that Long had returned to the area after eight years in the Hudson Valley, they flocked to the second coming of Caffe Bocce, no doubt lured by the warm hospitality. Of course, the food warrants a following too.

During several group meals I have recently enjoyed there, we have sampled appetizers, pastas, and entrées, but our favorite dishes consistently involved seafood, with the standout being a grilled whole sardine, drizzled with olive oil, pine nuts, raisins, and lemon juice, aside fennel slices grilled until golden brown.

Another fish served whole, the grilled branzino, reflected the deft touch of an experienced chef, having been removed from the grill in that narrow window when the flesh is still flaky but not chewy. It was so ably cooked that the assertive tomato sauce that smothered it seemed unnecessary.

Cephalopod fanatics will like the abundance of choices, from a salad of chili-spiced grilled octopus to a frequent special of grilled calamari stuffed with sausage. Desserts, in the capable hands of Joy Kuhar, also turn back the clock with classics like cheesecake, tiramisu, and, our group’s favorite, a flourless chocolate torte.

The wine list is designed to please, too—with affordable and versatile glasses like a refreshing Tiamo Prosecco ($7) and a fruit-forward 2009 San Lorenzo Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ($7).

For lunch, there are not only smaller portions of dinner items but also offerings like a grilled lamb burger. Sit-down lunch off the Downtown Mall can be a tough market to crack, but the value and quality at Caffe Bocce might just do the trick.

In an era when food is king, Caffe Bocce is a welcome throwback. The sincere care that Long and his staff show his guests recalls the original sense of the word “restaurant”—which derives from the French word for restore. “It’s strange,” said Long, of his return to the area. “It’s like the last eight years never happened.” Indeed.

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