Nice Bite: Cafe Ariana’s Italian charms and low prices make a basic menu work.
Thursday, January 3, 2013
Cafe Ariana is a welcome newcomer to the Pacific Grove dining scene, keeping things simple with a menu of anytime favorites that hit the spot for a quick lunch or no-frills dinner. But it’s the cafe’s desserts, above all else, that win hearts.
Lunchtime on a Saturday afternoon is a lively scene. The dozen tables are all occupied. A klatch of senior ladies polish off a holiday exchange and glasses of wine. A couple strolls in and orders take-away cups of gelato, while another has a feast of piping hot pizza and paninis.
As a P.G. resident, I eagerly awaited the opening of Cafe Ariana, wishful the new downtown cafe would be to P.G. what Caffe Trieste is to Monterey: a place to go for a meal or a snack, a coffee or a beer, and know whether you’re alone or in a group you’ll be comfortable and can enjoy quality cafe fare.
Cafe Ariana is not quite that, and it can’t be; the space is too small, the Pagrovian clientele too much their own breed. You’re welcome to linger, nursing a coffee and a housemade sweet, but the mood of the place – limited seating, lack of free WiFi (unless you’re an Xfinity customer and happen to know your account number to log on to the available hotspot) – make it the sort of spot you’re likely to leave as soon as you’ve consumed what you’ve bought.
There’s also a quality to Cafe Ariana that makes it seem like its owners have something else on their minds – seen in details like the unceremonious presentation of the food and a flat menu – and they do. The owners’ Favolorio’s Big Night Bistro two doors down is readying to reopen in February.
Part of that is the cafe’s disregard for its listed business hours. Note to the management: If your signage says you’re open at 11am and there are staff inside making eye contact with (and summarily ignoring) the customers on the other side of a door that should have been unlocked 20 minutes ago, the people on the outside will go elsewhere.
The menu is pizza and panini, soup and salad. The parlor trick of rearranging ingredients to constitute different menu items is in full-swing here: Several paninis can be found as a version of pizza.
There’s a guy who works at Cafe Ariana who’s the kind of on-point, tuned-in employee who makes a place run smoothly. He knows you’ve probably forgotten to grab your own fork and napkins by the counter and has the foresight to stick some in his apron for you when he’s dropping off your food. That guy was equally awesome on all of our visits. The woman who regularly works the counter makes a great cappuccino, but on every encounter we had with her she acted as if there were something else she’d rather be doing.
Food arrives on clear glass plates, paper-lined baskets or metal pizza trays. Pear and arugula salad ($7.95; $10.25 with chicken) with a sweet dressing, candied walnuts and crumbled gorgonzola is heavy on the arugula and light on the pears, but makes for an affordable and healthy lunch. Two other salads are on the menu: Caesar ($6.95; $9.95 with chicken) and a mundane house salad that’s sold alone ($5.25) or with a cup of soup ($8.50). The day’s lentil soup made my fiancee feel validated; it tasted nearly identical to her own delicious recipe.
Nine varieties of pizza ($9.95-$12.25) and as many styles of panini ($6.95-$7.95) are offered. Pizza margherita ($9.95) on crisp, hand-tossed thin crust is friendly on the wallet for a big-enough pie, but the quality of ingredients shows through the price – the food-service grade tomatoes sunk a pizza that’s meant to highlight the tomato.
Chicken saltimbocca with grilled breast meat and prosciutto ($7.75) was a dry sandwich, even with the sage mayo and Monterey Jack cheese. But dipping it into the cup of tomato basil puree gave a hell of an assist. The puree, a soup of the day ($5), is robust and warming victory.
Sixteen glorious flavors of gelato ($3.95-$4.95) fill a display that patrons are lured to stand in front of as they order and pay, with fun flavors like hazelnut, pomegranate, pistachio, as well as your standard chocolate, vanilla and the Italian classic stracciatella. An array of decadent desserts are made in-house and are worth visiting Ariana by themselves. Blueberry-topped cheesecake ($4.95) won me, but other treats like tiramisu, tarts, eclairs, cookies and biscotti are on deck as well. Italian sodas ($2.50) can be flavored as you like, and the mango-infused house ice tea ($2) is a surprising delight. People seem in-the-know, too; on one visit a couple walked in and ordered just two iced teas to-go. An espresso machine squeezes out cappuccinos and lattes ($2.50) that are high quality. However, what’s advertised as a 12-ounce cappuccino is served in a cup half that volume. A small assortment of bottled beers and sodas are available, as well as a more-involved selection of wines at $6-$10 a glass.
It has its flaws, but with affordable prices and Italian cafe charms, Ariana is a solid addition to downtown P.G. A little more attention to service will ensure it becomes a sure hit for tourists and a great place for locals to satisfy a sweet tooth or grab a quick bite.
CAFE ARIANA 11am-9:30pm Mon-Sat. 543 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove. 920-1381.