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Sole Luna Café

702 Ash Street, East Village




Saying of the day: A poca voglia, tutte le scuse sono buone.

It's on the sandwich board outside.

"What da heck does that mean?" I ask Yana the waitress.

"I don't know," Yana says. "I'm Russian. Gigio, what does that mean?"

"Ah," says Gigio. "Hard to explain. Something like 'When your heart isn't in it, any excuse sounds good.'"

Wow. That describes me today. Been working. Missed breakfast and lunch again. This place looks like a pretty good excuse to dodge the afternoon's work. Besides, rushing past to a job in the early mornings, I always thought it looked so cool here on the shoulder of El Cortez hill, with people sitting out in the sun slurping coffees, nibbling croissants, reading their New Yawk Times.

Today, it still looks cute, sticking out from the historic El Cortez hotel. It used to be called Twiggs. Now it's SoleLuna -- "Sun and Moon." Clever contraction of "sun" (Sole), "and" (e), and "moon" (Luna). Italian, 'course, not Spanish. White and blue umbrellas shelter a dozen tables outside the rounded front, with the El Cortez staff's cars parked right on top. So I pop inside to a sophisticated room with basic white, plus green, yellow, and orange decorated walls and a big bar. But the thing that grabs you is a colorful little triangular courtyard out to the side, with a fountain, potted plants, a bamboo fence, and loose green tenting slung above to keep the sun off. Underneath, women sprawl on blue-green cushions, like Cleopatras. Men mainly use the chairs, laptopping or talking biz with the women. It's like busting in on a wealthy house party in Pompeii.

So, guess I'm here, may as well eat. I ask for a coffee ("medio," 16 oz., $1.75) and go find a spare table out front, between two pots of entwined-trunk ficus trees. Huh. We look over the rack of banks that anchor B Street's financial district. Union Bank, Bank of America, Comerica Bank. It's quiet up here, though, except for Euro-pop music coming from inside. You notice two things: folks steaming uphill on foot to get here, arriving beat, all a-sweat, haggard, some of them. It's like sitting on Everest watching the climbers lip up over the South Col. The other thing is how many power players we've got in here. Like this guy fingering his iPhone, talking big bucks, then, portfolio under his arm, slapping down his skateboard and rolling off to a meeting in businessland. Guy in blue-and-yellow navy sweats appears, phone at his ear. "What? No space available till tomorrow? I've gotta be in Lahore by tomorrow night." He walks around a guy crushing cans on the street, over to a black Ford GT, and zooms off.

Yana turns up with the coffee and the menu. Hmm. Seeing a lot of $7.25 panini, $7.50 salads, and more expensive antipasti and carpacci (shaved cured beef). The Bresaola, with arugula and Parmesan, is $9.50. The antipasto Emiliano, with cheese and cold cuts on a wood trencher, runs to $14.50. But I swear I ain't spending over $7.50, plus coffee. Two panini I like the look of are the Affumicato, a sandwich with smoked turkey, smoked mozzarella, and radicchio, plus rosemary mayo; and the Rustico, with prosciutto speck (a kind of air-dried ham), goat cheese, olive pâté, grilled zucchini, and fresh spinach. And all sandwiches come with chips or side salad.

But when it's crunch time I opt for a full-size salad. Yeah, me, a salad. Wanna pump health. Got more hills to climb. I almost ask for the Primavera, which has Gorgonzola, sliced pears, toasted almonds, and blueberries mixed in with its arugula. But in the end I choose the Siciliana, with spinach, rosemary-marinated tuna, boiled eggs, capers, and mozzarella, because it sounds almost like a Niçoise, which I always love.

And then, while I'm waiting, slurping this excellent coffee, I fall off the health wagon. I can't help thinking, dammit, I want breakfast: How about BLT -- Breakfast and Lunch Together. Maybe slip in a croissant while I'm waiting for the salad. Only problem is, there is no waiting. Zap! Salad's here. But heck, it's not going to get cold. So I ask Yana for a chocolate croissant ($1.95) anyway. She brings it out, and man, that coffee-croissant combo is unbeatable. Now I'm happy. I've done breakfast. Let's do lunch.

My salad? It tastes, well, a little dry, feathery. Yes, you can taste the rosemary in the tuna, but not the tuna in the rosemary. That's when I make the wisest choice of the day. I ask Yana for olive oil and vinegar and salt. She brings out two bottles. I gunk the liquids, then liberate a bit of salt from this cute little eggshell thing and...presto! Salad comes alive. And now I can also dollop a little oil on the bread slices I use for mopping up (you get a whole small loaf of sliced Italian bread).

It turns out that the two guys running this place, Gigio and Alessandro, used to work as bartenders in the Gaslamp. "Before that, I lived in Milan," says Gigio, "and Alessandro came from Bologna. A café from Milano. That's what we're trying to be. Here, we bake everything as at home. You ought to try our specials, like eggplant Parmigiano. We get our prosciutto direct from Italy."

And is there a Milan style of cooking? "Well," says Gigio, "there's a Milan style of living. Quick. We want everything yesterday. At least here, you know we won't keep you waiting."

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