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Lowercase centro cafe Ups the Standards in Riverwest

Quality ingredients, vegan options abound

Jul. 15, 2009
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While Alterra Coffee and Rio West Cantina on Humboldt Boulevard are the most noticeable of Riverwest’s continuing revitalization, it’s the enterprise of Center Street, already home to Fuel Cafe, Stonefly Brewery and Club Timbuktu, that is the most interesting. In June, centro cafe joined the fold.

Pat Moore, who owns the business with his wife, Peg Karpfinger, did much of the renovation work himself. The interior conveys a European feel and holds just a dozen tables. The cafe’s discreet entry features only a small sign on the front door. But word is definitely out about centro cafe, so weekends and even weekday evenings can be very busy—and for good reason.

Behind a stunning marble-topped counter, chefs prepare a fairly simple menu of appetizers, sandwiches and pastas.

The white bean dip ($4) has rounds of garlic bread. This dip is not only vegan, it is addictive, and the bread will quickly run out. Then there are the grilled asparagus wrapped in prosciutto ($5) and served on a bed of field greens with lemon-herb vinaigrette. Carnivores will savor the half-dozen spears wrapped in thin slices of that savory ham. Grilled calamari with scallops ($8) excels in its simplicity. The calamari and small scallops are slightly charred and served over the same bed of field greens.

The rocket salad ($5), aka rucola or arugula, is utterly fresh leaves with shavings of aged Parmesan, the kind every decent Caesar salad should have. There is no dressing, however—just cruets of olive oil and vinegar. The vinegar is an undistinguished balsamic that seems outdated on this fine menu. How about the lemon-herb vinaigrette instead?

In keeping with the neighborhood and the times, the pastas are available with gluten-free versions. Quite a few of the items are vegan as well. If you’re wondering how good vegan pasta can be with no meat or dairy products, the answer is: quite tasty. The pasta primavera ($8) is spaghetti with assorted fresh vegetables. You will find grilled eggplant, red pepper, summer squash, spinach and broccoli. Pasta primavera usually uses a cream sauce that is taboo for vegans, but this version opts for a tomato with white wine sauce, plus a touch of fresh basil, for fine results.

The gnocchi ($12) are vegetarian, not vegan. The numerous potato dumplings have an ideal texture, firm but not rubbery. They are accompanied by fresh spinach and roasted red peppers with a bit of white wine and plenty of garlic. It makes for another fine item, but a dash of grated Parmesan keeps these from qualifying as vegan.

Penne con salsiccia ($9) is one of the meatier pastas. It has a robust tomato sauce, a few bits of portobello mushrooms, fontina cheese and pieces of Italian sausage.

You can customize pastas by adding an extra item ($1-$5.50). This could range from some extra mozzarella to some calamari or meatballs. Vegan meatballs are also available. The pastas only include a few slices of bread, so a starter course is in order, especially since the entrees are so reasonable.

Service is a mixed bag, perfectly acceptable at slow periods but haphazard when the place is busy. But patience has its rewards, and the chefs certainly cannot be faulted. They put on an amazing show of efficiency and productivity.

The wine list is a bit limited with 17 varieties, mostly from Italy. But the only real minus is a cash-only policy, as no credit cards are accepted. There is an ATM, however, and there’s little complaint when the priciest entree is just $12.

Center Street’s centro cafe is one of the highlights of 2009. The quality of ingredients is high, the decor charming and the low prices very appealing.

Centro Cafe 808 E. Center St. (414) 455-3751 $-$$ Cash-only Smoke-free

Photo by Kate Engbring


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