Cafe 322 - Dinner and a Show
Remember the good old days, when Italian restaurants had opera-singing waiters? Mario and Larry Lalli grew up in the good old days, in one such restaurant. Mario and Larry’s family has been in the restaurant business for over 50 years. The two cousins have continued the tradition begun by their fathers, previously with a pizzeria in Palm Springs, and now with Café 322 in Sierra Madre. Larry tears it up in the kitchen while Mario is master of the bar, where he mixes up his own specialties like the Italian Surfer and an espresso martini that weirdly tastes exactly like an espresso.
Cafe 322 is simple enough to find, Sierra Madre is really a one-horse town and that horse canters down Sierra Madre Boulevard. The address? 322 of course. Do not fear getting lost if you venture a little bit East of the Disney Bridge. And if you happen to have a gig at the Buccaneer, you are in luck - because Café 322 is right on the way. Mario might even come watch your band play after they close up.
The kitchen bakes everything fresh daily. The diamond-cut focaccia is unlike any you have ever tried before. The perfect sponge, combined with a crusty bit of salt on the top, make it impossible to keep your hands out of the bread basket. Cruets on the table ingeniously and whimsically contain the balsamic vinegar in a little glass bunch of grapes that hang suspended inside the olive oil. The balsamic and olive oil are of the highest quality, so they are the perfect accompaniment for the focaccia.
For starters I would highly recommend the usually mundane, but far elevated artichoke and spinach dip. Maybe it is because I was a little drunk the night I ate it, but it was a very satisfying, tactile experience. Pour a few more Italian Surfers in me, and I could have taken a bath in the stuff. When I booked a table at Café 322 for my birthday, Larry sent me out a complimentary starter – a "Grilled Portobello" which was topped with gorgonzola. Let me just say that I think Portobellos are over-rated, flavorless, overgrown criminis. And I have always hated bleu cheese. I was happy to cut it up into many small portions so all of my friends could share it around the table. But in true, Bourdainian fashion, I had to try everything offered to me by my hosts. Well, the minute I tasted it I was ready to snatch that Portobello right back. To hell with sharing! Larry had managed to grill the Portobello into a smoky, earthy compliment for the bleu cheese. Then he used an intense balsamic reduction to cut right through that moldiness and free up the creamy wonder of the gorgonzola like a diamond in the rough. I can’t believe he got me to love two foods that I have disliked for my entire life.
The freshly baked breads and pizza dough make the sandwiches and pizzas a slam-dunk. The Palermo Panini and the Italian Dip sandwiches are favorites. Focaccia and panini may sound like yesterday's news to the ever-changing palate of LA's restaurant scene, but these are not the same-old paninis. They are true comfort food, like uber grilled cheese and patty melts. The pizzas take no prisoners. The crust is thin and hardy, more rustic and uncompromising than the status quo at most modern pizzerias. The kitchen will even whip up a gourmet vegan pizza by special request. The pastas are not made in-house, but an excellent supplier makes it difficult to tell, especially the pappardelle, which is usually a tip-off. In fact, the Pappardelle with Lamb Ragu is my husband’s favorite dish. One of my friends had the genius idea to order a side of mozzarella balls and toss them into her Capellini al Pomadoro where they rested like little eyeballs. Creamy, delicious little eyeballs. She had just invented caprese pasta. Café 322 has a lasagna of the day, much like the soup of the day. It always comes highly recommended. The night I tried it, it was extremely light and fresh, with just a rich ricotta and simple marinara resting between layers of pasta. There was no mozzarella or heavy meat sauce to weigh it down.
Part bar, part restaurant, and part showcase, Café 322 has it all. On weekends a variety of jazz-fusion bands play, including Mario and Larry’s own Fatso Jetson. And whatever happened to those singing waiters? They are alive and well and singing at Café 322 on Sunday nights. Never fear, they are not hovering over you trilling away while you are trying to eat your manicotti in peace. Accompanied by a single white piano, a variety of servers, family members (including Mario’s daughter), and other members of the show community get up onstage and entertain each other with song. Anything from jaunty show tunes to full-on, glass-shattering arias are fair game. Some nights you may even get a little calypso in the mix, or a surprisingly spry elderly gentleman tap-dancing his heart out for you.
Some people have been surprised by the weekend's live music when they were anticipating a quiet dinner out. Make sure to check the calendar first, because the only way to avoid a band that is not your cup of tea is by dining in the bar or on the patio. For Sunday’s "Broadway to Opera", singing starts around 7pm. If you sit near the stage, other diners subtly encourage attentiveness to the singers. So if you would prefer to chat with your dining partner, sit around the edge of the room or in the bar. But on jazz and rock nights, it’s not about decorum. Order up an Italian Surfer and get ready to dance in the aisles.
322 West Sierra Madre Blvd.
Sierra Madre Ca 91024