The allure of Allora
Wine bar and coffee shop Caffe Allora forgoes pretension for deliciously unassuming northern Italian fare
If there has to be a coffee shop on every block, then more of them should serve wine, like Caffe Allora, where you won't find a single overstuffed chair or venti-sized coffee vessel.
Caffe Allora, somewhat obscured by shade-giving elm trees, doubles as an enoteca. Similar to other wine bars around town, Allora matches its bottles with plates, ounce for ounce.
But Allora is less of a jaunty culinary innovator like pioneering Navarre and Noble Rot, and more of a trusty kitchen to turn to when the siren song of an after-work aperitif and bowl of pasta begins to sound.
This is exactly what owner Paolo Parrilli, a veteran shop manager for Torrefazione Italia, had in mind. He envisioned Caffe Allora as a venue for the Italian happy hour Ñ just like you might find in his native northern Italy.
It certainly exudes the flair we associate with modern, urban Italy, with Parrilli and company padding around in brightly colored, retro-styled sneakers and snappy short-sleeved button-downs. The cafe's spare style is grounded by a bit of clutter, and nothing Ñ from plate presentation to the attire of customers Ñ is too perfect.
Small but tall, Caffe Allora has seating on two levels, plus a couple of sidewalk tables to allow for al fresco dining. There is nary a faux-textured peachy wall or elaborate ceramic urn in sight. The primary art is a trio of matte apricot panels hung against a gallery-white wall.
Allora's food echoes the cafe's unfussy aesthetic. Patrons can order as little as a ramekin of olives or make dinner a three-course affair, choosing among antipasto, several salads and panini. At night, two pastas and two soups augment these options; they're usually humble creations with peasant roots.
Fettuccine with little clouds of fresh mozzarella and sweet tomato sauce is a dish that is so satisfying it will linger in your mind for weeks after the first bite. Its simplicity also may inspire attempts to duplicate the recipe at home, and for good reason: It's an ideal, no-hassle dish that is approachable and rewarding even when the mercury spikes.
On a different visit, pasta with anchovies and zucchini had zesty flavor but fell victim to overcooking, a surefire way to ruin a good recipe. The panini also are problematic. Though the sandwiches are prepared in a half-dozen winning combinations Ñ from gorgonzola with pear and walnuts to smoked salmon with cream cheese and red onions Ñ they are barely grilled. Panini are best when pressed into a warm, flat sandwich that you can actually get your mouth around, with a little melted cheese oozing out between the bread slices.
Oddly enough, many of Allora's panini contain lettuce Ñ a good argument to keep the sandwiches tepid Ñ and are served lukewarm, the bread toasted just enough to scrape the roof of your mouth. Omit the lettuce, press the sandwiches properly and Caffe Allora would be on its way to some very decent, piping-hot panini.
Salads and antipasto are Allora's strong suit. The cafe's eponymous salad is a crisp mix of fennel, celery, lettuces, walnuts and red onion, lightly dressed in excellent olive oil.
Grab an outdoor table and dig into the elegant tonno salad Ñ which includes chunk tuna, flageolet beans, celery, onions, olive oil and coarse salt Ñ and the alluring sidewalk cafes of Mediterranean towns don't feel so far away.
The antipasto misto, a platter that screams authenticity, has the same effect. The peperonata is sweet and hot, not greasy; salami is thickly sliced; the mortadella is nicely marbled; and the fontina is nutty and flavorful.
Though the crunching, rattling trucks lurching down Northwest Ninth Avenue interrupt this idyll with some regularity, they don't dilute Caffe Allora's charm. So what if sleek little Allora isn't set in some gorgeously decaying stone building in a centuries-old Italian village? It's authentic, and it's ours.