Date night at Napolese

I’ve been dining out like crazy this past month, but mostly for work and am thus bound by confidentiality!

Trying a new approach for this entry… hubby and I had dinner last night at Napolese, and each wrote a separate entry about the experience. Below is our he-said/she-said review:


Being a big Café Patachou fan, I was psyched to try out Martha Hoover’s newest invention – Napolese.

This cozy artisanal pizza place is located just around the corner from the original Patachou on 49th Street just off Pennsylvania. Hubby and I decided to go for dinner on one of our semi-regular date nights, but hadn’t made a reservation. We got a little nervous when we drove past looking for parking and saw waiting customers spilling out onto the sidewalk.

After quickly discussing a few alternatives, we decided to go for it and see just how long the wait was. The congenial hostess told us we could expect 20 to 30 minutes, but offered to get us a glass of wine to enjoy in the meantime. As it turned out, there was no need; we were led to a table within 10 minutes, if that.

Napolese is surprisingly small. About the same size as Café Patachou. One little dining room and that’s it. There are a half dozen or so outdoor tables, but hubby wasn’t thrilled about al fresco dining in a long-sleeved black shirt in near 90 degrees. I think we were both relieved to receive seats inside near the window.

Décor is fairly subdued — dark wood, one bookcase full of books and glass knick-knacks, another full of wine bottles. A row of bar seating gives diners a chance to check out the pizza-making process up close and personal. Cool. There’s really not much room to play with, but they’ve done a good job of making it feel classy, not kitschy.

You should know going in, this place is LOUD. This many people in one small dining room makes for a hell of a lot of noise. Unless you happen to read lips, dinner conversation at a reasonable decibel is not a possibility. Hubby and I had a hard time hearing each other across the two-top.

We selected wine right off the bat from a short but decent selection of Italian varietals. I opted for a glass of Valpolicella, always a dependable choice, I find. Hubby got a refreshing Lambrusco, served nicely chilled and appropriately fizzy (I once heard someone call this “soda pop wine” and it’s always stuck with me). Wines are available by the glass, full bottles and quarter liters, which you don’t see very often here but are common in Italy. (The $10 to $15 per quarter price tag is quite a bit higher than the 2 euros you spend on the same amount of excellent house red or white in Milan, but I digress…)

Water is brought to each table in a pretty resealable glass bottle, and bottles are replaced as needed. Hubby and I wondered if they really just fill up the bottles with regular old tap, but no matter. It made for a nice presentation. While we were perusing the menu, we received a small gratis dish of tasty marinated olives – I detected thyme in the herb mix. And, the olives were already pitted, thank God. It’s hard to look sexy on a date night when you’re trying to discreetly spit out a gnawed pit and then look for somewhere to dispose of it. Hubby and I were both starving, and these olives disappeared quickly.

The menu isn’t huge — a few appetizers, a handful of salads, a couple Neapolitan sandwiches, and of course, the pizzas. You can choose from house-recipe pies, or create your own from a list of (sometimes slightly odd) gourmet toppings like pancetta, quail eggs, arugula and fingerling potatoes.

The baked goat cheese with tomato sauce starter was tempting, but seemed a little redundant in a pizza place, as did bruschetta. We went straight for the Napolese double chopped house salad. A good move, as the huge bowl was plenty for us to comfortably split. The shredded romaine was generously studded with cheese, roasted peppers, white beans and toothsome chunks of pepperoni and capricola, all tossed with a subtle red wine vinaigrette. I loved that everything was chopped small and manageable by fork – no awkward wrestling with big unwieldy leaves of lettuce. This hefty bowl of greens was like a salad and starter all in one.

Napolese chopped salad

Having been to Milan twice within the past year, our pizza expectations are fairly high for a restaurant that claims authentic Italian-style pies. After some discussion, hubby and I went for the classic choice – a buffalo margherita pizza. The thin-crusted pizzas here are all the same size, eight slices worth, but not heavy like a deep-dish variety would be. We saw several tables ordering a pizza per person, but that seemed like overkill to me. I knew I’d probably only need a piece or two to be satisfied and would only end up taking the rest home, as many of our fellow diners seemed to be doing.

Must say, when our pizza arrived at the table, it looked and smelled delicious. Obviously handmade with melty cheese, a scattering of thickly chiffonaded basil, and a few big crispy dough bubbles emerging in the outer crust. We eagerly pulled slices onto our plates and got to work. I’m sorry to say, I was disappointed. The dough in the center of the pizza was pretty undercooked and could have withstood another minute or two in the oven. Subsequently, the sauce in the very middle hadn’t had time to thicken up in the heat of the oven and ran off the pizza in a watery mess when we pulled the slices apart. It wasn’t inedible, just a little underdone.

Napolese pizza margherita

The toppings were good, though, just the right amount of sauce, bubbly circles of melted buffalo mozzarella cheese, bracing basil and deliciously sweet little roasted grape tomatoes (I could easily have eaten a dish of these as a starter with some bread – note to self, experiment with this idea at home). The crust got better the closer you got to the outer edge and I really wished it had been cooked that consistently good throughout. In spite of its imperfections, we still finished the entire pizza between the two of us.

For dessert, I had my eye on the affrogato di gelato, advertised on the menu as vanilla gelato topped with espresso. Mmmm. When we ordered one to share, our server asked us if we’d like to sub another flavor gelato for the vanilla, an option we didn’t realize was available, but happily accepted. This was a great call on her part. The dessert arrived very quickly, a good-sized glass goblet/dish of hazelnut gelato with a cup of espresso on the side for us to pour over at will. (Hubby is the espresso aficionado, so read on for his thoughts on said coffee below.) The combination of coffee and hazelnut was fantastically rich and nutty, almost like a sweet sesame flavor, and we happily polished off the whole thing in short order.

Napolese affrogato

I have to make a point to mention that service at Napolese was prompt, friendly and efficient throughout the meal. Accommodating but never irritating or insincere, we never had to wait more than few minutes if we needed anything. And for such a small and busy place, we never felt rushed to give up our table. Kudos.

Our total bill was $73 without tip. Pretty expensive for a salad, one pizza and a dessert, although when you consider that we did have five glasses of wine between  us, not unheard of, I suppose. A good meal definitely, but thinking about it the day after, I’m not sure it quite lived up to the hype. Think next time, I’d still prefer a Quattro Fromaggio at Bazbeaux.


The fair Amy looked ravishing in a dark dress and a new dark hairdo. By coincidence I was wearing dark trousers and a dark shirt (I don’t have anything else). We climbed into our black Explorer and off we went to a restaurant staffed by young lovelies also wearing black. If Robert Palmer was sitting in the corner smiling I would not have been surprised except for the fact that he is actually dead.

On the other hand, Napolese was far from dead, so busy in fact that we circled past a second time to wonder on the wait time. Finding a spot we walked past the outdoor drinkers and were informed that 30 minutes was to be expected.

There isn’t any bar here where you can actually sit and wait for a table whilst enjoying a glass so I was a little alarmed as, wearing only black, with long sleeves, I certainly did not fancy standing around outside for half an hour, sweating with the sun beaming down on my shiny bald head. The 15 or so drinkers outside were almost all wearing the local uniform of tshirt and shirts, being a Euro these items are of course for painting houses only.

Food critic Amy Lynch must have had her photo circled around the kitchens of Indianapolis as one to be feared as we were seated in less than five minutes, not having time to even grab a glass of wine. To my delight we were also seated inside. My lovely wife loves to eat outside, but for me this is an option I generally do not partake of as it is hot and uncomfortable, and at this particular location proximity to the local vehicular traffic was not of interest.

So, inside we were.

We were seated close to the window, and I have to say the background noise was deafening, making conversation almost impossible. Having just moved on from the ‘will we wait ot not’ conversation I was certain Amy thought I didn’t want to be there and this conversational challenge was not going to help. This was a date night and I did not want anything to go wrong. On the other hand, the surrounding noise made disagreeing almost impossible. If we were to have a disagreement it would be a full on screaming match and in 5 years of marriage we have not hit that spot so we settled in to what was another lovely romantic evening.

I selected a Lambrusco, not often to be found and sometimes very refreshing (in this case it worked as I had two more), and Amy had a Valpolicella. The menu was not the longest, but for an indecisive fellow like myself, long enough. Having read some excellent reviews in various publications and of course having just come back from Italy a few weeks ago, we were looking forward to making our comparisons. A little plate of olives arrived with our drinks and were devoured almost instantly, mostly by me. Sorry, babe.

Amy will surely elaborate on the menu in full, and as you likely already know we split the chopped salad and a pizza. The salad was excellent, and I could have had another if it weren’t for the need for pizza space. I do not think I have ever heard anyone say they could have had another salad, and it is certainly a first for me, so we were off to a lightning start.

The pizza arrived in a reassuring ‘pizza made from scratch with love and attention’ timeframe, and it looked fantastic. My knife and fork disappeared with my salad plate and the waitress rushed to find replacements, returning with a fork. I have often found a knife useful when eating pizza in a restaurant but assumed we were in for a crispy affair here so was not too bothered.

As pizzas go, it was good, but not great. It was a little runny and really could have done with a little more time in the oven, as the dough right at the centre was not completely cooked. We still polished it off so it can’t have been that bad.

It was at this point we noticed just how good the service was. Water appeared at the table unobtrusively, the waitress managed to re-fill my glass without Amy noticing, and we never felt rushed or upsold. We were in the driving seat and it was nice to linger and not feel the need to leave. When Amy was finally getting to the end of her glass our waitress appeared and asked if we would like another, and once we mentioned dessert made a suggestion we were delighted with.

The hazelnut gelato with espresso was absolutely lovely. Reading the menu earlier in the week we both thought that would be a choice to share, and were not disappointed. Having the little cup of espresso for you to pour over the ice cream was a nice touch. Yummy!

The espresso served with the ice cream saved me a potential disappointment. By no means an expert, I do like a nice espresso and cannot for the life of me understand why restaurants purchase this very expensive machinery only to use it improperly. Pet hates are no crema, cold espresso, or served in a cold cup. I can bang out a fine effort on a $34 E-bay machine in my office so the restaurants of Indiana have no excuse, in my cranky opinion. Anyhow the cup was cold and the crema sadly lacking.

The tab came to $73 plus tip, not bad for an upscale dining experience but at the same quite a lot given that we shared all three courses. The pizza did not live up to expectations, but the salad and service can hide a multitude of sins. The noise really was an issue, and I would not recommend anyone taking their girlfriend to break up, you really would need to shout out whatever it was you could no longer stand about her. I was (retrospectively) surprised that no bread was offered, but given it was a pizza restaurant not so surprising and the olives were a fine replacement.

Would I go back? Possibly, but I would not rush back.

Napolese on Urbanspoon

14 West, not the best

Yesterday, hubby and I were recounting all of the Valentine’s Days we’ve shared thus far. Last year, we were in Paris — that’s going to be a hard act to top. Ever. Year before that, I was 8 months pregnant and laid up on bed rest. Neither of us can remember what we did the year before that, but for our first V-Day as a married duo (2006), I cooked a lovely candlelit dinner at our little rented cottage in Sonoma. We weren’t physically together for Valentine’s Day the year we were dating. I was in Indiana and hubby was in Germany, but I seem to recall he sent me some books for the occasion.

So that gets us up to speed. We weren’t sure we’d even have a chance to do anything romantic this year, between getting toddler-care squared away and hubby having to work at some sort of motorcycle trade show downtown at the convention center this weekend. Lo and behold, the daycare where the toddler attends offered a babysitting service last night courtesy of a Girl Scout troop trying to raise money for a trip this summer. Sold to the man without the hat! Hubby pledged to knock off work by 5 p.m. and date night was on like Donkey Kong.

I started thinking about dining options, worried that we might have trouble getting in somewhere nice, what with the trade show going on and the fact that it was Saturday night on Valentine’s Day weekend. My original idea was to hit Tastings, a relatively new wine bar located in the swanky Conrad Hotel. However, hubby and I knew we would want a full meal and it looked like they only served cheese plates, so that was out.

I’d wanted to try 14 West for a long time, and an online search discovered they had a special menu this weekend. Perfect! When I called, the only reservation times open were 4 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., both well outside of the babysitting window. Hmph. I put my name on a wait list and figured if all else failed, maybe we could eat at the bar. As luck would have it, I got a phone call around 3:30 from the hostess saying she’d had an opening at 6 p.m. I figured I must be livin’ right and quickly claimed it.

Hubby agreed to meet me in the 14 West bar at 5:30. I changed outfits about five times (hubby told me to wear something “hot”), packed up the little man and we were off. Right on time, I had just parked the car in one of the Circle Centre lots and was locking it up when I got a text. “Running late, just got called into a meeting.” Great. I texted back to ask how late and walked on up to the restaurant. With my hand on the door, hubby replied “45 minutes.” I nearly burst into tears, seconds away from spinning on my heel and calling the whole evening quits. Fortunately, hubby then called as I was on the verge of meltdown to tell me it was just a joke and he was waiting for me at the bar. Whew. Crisis averted.

14 West was hopping, obviously a popular spot. It’s pretty upscale, the décor is fairly romantic and hubby looked very dashing sitting at the bar. (My heart went pitter-patter all over again when I caught sight of him.) We enjoyed a drink – Stella Artois for him and a fragrant glass of Riesling for me — and chatted warmly for a cozy half an hour. The bartender was very friendly and had a wonderful laugh. I had high hopes for a lovely meal.

At 6 on the dot, we got up to claim our spot – a very wide table tucked into a corner upstairs in a crowded, noisy room. Hubby and I felt miles away from each other, but our table was nearly jammed flush with the one next to us. It was almost like we were on a date with the people sitting next to us instead of each other! Intimate conversation was a little difficult to achieve, but no matter. We settled in and turned out attention to the menu.

Our waiter, who we’ll call Brandon (because that was his name) seemed pretty stressed; we overheard him explaining to our fellow compadres next door about how many tables he had to take care of and how busy they were that night. Um. Yeah. Not what you want to hear from your waiter immediately after being seated. This didn’t bode well. Still, Brandon managed to get us our drinks fairly quickly and explained the steak frites appetizer in detail when hubby asked, but didn’t give us any schpiel about the special menu. We placed our order and waited. And waited. And waited…

We didn’t order anything complicated, two entrees and a Caesar salad for the hubster. I really wanted to try either the lobster mashed potatoes or the lobster mac and cheese, but the side servings looked huge and I knew my seafood-hating hubby wouldn’t have pitched in to help. A hostess with huge boobs brought us a couple warm pretzel rolls in the meantime, which we devoured in about two seconds. Thirty minutes later, we’d watched Caesar salads flying around the room to every table but ours. Brandon finally came by to let us know our entrees were on the way and got flustered when hubby asked about the status of his salad. Hubby told him if it was coming out as the same time as the entrees to just forget about it. So he did.

Entrees arrived a few minutes after. The food was delicious – hubby got a steak with steamed vegetables on the side. Nothing terribly fancy, but he said it was good. My meal was a nicely cooked piece of Chilean sea bass on top of risotto with some wild mushrooms and a basil sauce. It tasted great, but the serving size seemed a bit scant for $36 or whatever we paid for it. Also, when I took a bite of mushrooms, I felt something in my mouth that didn’t seem right and proceeded to fish out a dime-sized piece of cardboard. That was somewhat alarming. I’d already eaten half my meal by that point, so I went ahead and finished it, hoping I wasn’t in for some sort of delayed-reaction contamination.

Brandon finally came back to check on us and I pointed out the cardboard. He apologized profusely, promising to bring it to the manager’s attention. A short while later, he returned to let us know they were going to comp us two desserts, which we would have ordered anyway, so that worked out pretty well. I did find it a little off-putting that he didn’t let us select the desserts we wanted, instead just telling us which two they were going to give us. But hey, it was on the house, so whatever.

To Brandon’s credit, the desserts arrived fairly quickly – an individual cheesecake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate drizzle, and a slab of chocolate mousse cake with another scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side, this one rolled in an addictively crunchy praline coating. Both were yummy. We polished off the cheesecake, but the chocolate cake was so rich, we could only manage a few bites. That’s saying something – I usually have no problem tackling the most decadent of chocolate desserts, but this was too much even for me.

By this time, we really needed to get going in order to pick up the toddler on time. Brandon dropped off the check, but then kept passing by our table without picking up my debit card. I tried unsuccessfully to flag him down three or four times before getting pissed off. We finally just stood up to leave and handed him our payment on the way out, standing in the hall while he ran my card. Even with the comped desserts and the subtraction of one of hubby’s Stellas, the bill still topped $100.

I realize Brandon was extra-busy and stressed, but still. There’s no excuse for lackluster service at a restaurant of this caliber, especially on a special occasion like Valentine’s Day. I tipped 10 percent; an amount hubby and I felt was extremely generous, all things considered. The food was great (well, apart from the cardboard) and the ambiance was nice, but overall, the 14 West dining experience was something of a letdown for us. And served as a reminder why we don’t tend to frequent upscale restaurants very often – too much pressure and too many high expectations that can fall short. When we’re paying that kind of money, we expect things to be pretty much perfect, and they rarely are. (St Elmo’s is one of the few spots that really delivers in this capacity.)

In retrospect, we figured we probably would have had a much better experience just eating at the bar like we’d originally intended. Live and learn. It was still great to get dressed up and meet my handsome husband out for a real date, so in that sense, it was definitely a happy Valentine’s Day.