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Nunzi's Cafe

1255 University Avenue, Hillcrest

It’s about 9:00 at night. Wednesday. I hear a ripple of people clapping. I look in through the door of this café I’ve never noticed before. Place is filled. Can hear the thudded Ps of someone talking too close to a microphone.

That’s when I notice a whiteboard on the sidewalk that reads, “Tonight Open Mic 7:30–10:00.”

And below that, “House Specialties.” Items like short-rib cannelloni with meat sauce, $13. Cheese ravioli with roasted eggplant in a spicy marinara sauce, $12. Pork roast with mushroom sauce, $14. Reasonable, but a tad above my comfort zone.

“Go for the meatloaf panini,” says a guy standing next to me. “The Angus beef one. Best deal here.”

I worry that with this performance thing going on, I might not get nuttin’. Will I have to wait till the performances are over? But by now I’m through the door, into the room. And the whole room looks back: for a moment, till you’re settled, you’re the unwilling star.

Interior’s salmon and brown and red walls, with a high corrugated-metal ceiling. Tables up and down either side are full. Gal at the microphone is reading a poem off her iPhone. Something about “the droplets from my body…” I pass a guy seated at the first table on the right. There’s a little notice: “Sign in here.”

He looks up expectantly. But wild horses couldn’t get me to sign up. What would I recite? “Mary had a little lamb, she said it was delicious …?”

I figure I have to go on through to the back, where the counter is, to get my order in. And, sure enough, that’s the thing to do while the performance is on. Gal named Cali comes up to take my order.

“Uh, panini?” I say. “The one with the Angus meatloaf?”

Cali hands me a menu. “Oh, yes. It’s our most popular panini.”

And, okay, whew. Paninis are all $7 to $8. Not like the prices on the board outside. Artichoke, with avo, pesto mayo, sautéed spinach, and provolone, is $7. The chicken-bacon panini with cheese is $7, too. They have prosciutto, turkey, roast beef. Those are $8.

There’s a special section for “meatloaf paninis,” all for $7.50. With these, you’ve gotta make choices along the way. Like, Angus beef or turkey meatloaf? Pesto or chipotle mayo or marinara sauce? Fresh tomato, sautéed spinach, bacon, or roasted red peppers? (Choose two.) Cheeses? Pepper jack, muenster, provolone, or cheddar. (Choose one.)

They also have cheaper house specialties, apart from paninis. Chicken breast stuffed with ricotta and spinach and wrapped with prosciutto is $10. You can have beef stew ($10) or a vegetable ratatouille ($8). Each comes with veggies and potatoes. So that’s a heckuva price.

The meatloaf and bacon panini was great. Like a patty melt.

But me? Gotta try the meatloaf. I choose the Angus/chipotle/spinach/bacon/muenster combo ($7.50 with chips) and a $1.50 coffee (free refills). I take the coffee to a table near the mic. Guy named Gabe G. is rapping, angry-but-witty, with a pretty good rhythm. But they’re not doing only poetry here. Just as Cali brings my panini and chips, this Friar Tuck kinda guy gets up and starts telling about growing up Italian in Jersey.

“My grandfather sat me down to teach me about sex when I was 12,” he says. “He didn’t know how to do it, so he tried to combine it with math…”

Ooh…man. This meatloaf is something else. The spinach, crispy bacon, and semi-melted muenster cheese make a really wicked support group for star. Nice crispy bread, too

“…So he says, ‘Think of it like addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication…’”

Guy next door to me is settling into a spinach salad with gorgonzola, walnuts, cranberries, chicken breast, and balsamic vinaigrette. Eight bucks.

“…He says, ‘First you add a bed, then you subtract your clothes…’”

I miss the third line. But it’s about division, so I can guess.

“…‘and then you just hope you don’t multiply.’”

Okay, you had to be here. Guy’s got one of those faces that he doesn’t have to say a thing and you’d crack up. Dominick DeFalco. Must remember him.

Standups from the open mic (from left: Gabe G., Hanna, Dominick DeFalco, Adam Stutz)

But here’s the funny thing. Where everything was tense — nervous performers, audience searching for ways to support them — by the time Adam Stutz, the organizer, wraps it up an hour later, we’ve broken through all sorts of barriers. It feels like a real artists’ get-together. Okay, we’re not in Paris or Palermo yet. But we’re getting there. Drawn together, elevated by the risks everybody has taken. Everybody except me.

Turns out, Sicily is where Nunzia Daniele is from. She’s 33. “I’m coming up on the one-year anniversary since I opened this restaurant,” she says. “It’s been a rough one. I work 12 hours, seven days. My parents — and they’re in the restaurant business — said I was crazy doing this. I cook everything. We make our desserts. We have serious food here. But people don’t seem to realize that. Maybe it’s the ‘café’ name. Maybe it should be called ‘Nunzi’s Bistro-Cafe.’”

Good thinking.

She says she combines southern and northern Italian food (the northern is more creamy). “But I try to give it the Sicilian touch. Sicilian food’s a little heavier. Think of Sicilian pizzas. It’s all about red sauce, capers, citrus, spices, saffron, olives, eggplant, and seafood. Lots of seafood. We’re an island.”

There are a couple of seafood choices, I see now. But the meatloaf panini was great. Like a patty-melt. I’m full; gut is drum-tight. I get up to go, slowly, because there’s lots of interesting local art on the walls. “I just asked on Facebook if anybody wanted to hang their stuff here,” Nunzia says. “Just like this open-mic night started when Adam asked if I’d like to hold it here. I said, ‘Of course!’”

Only thing I regret now: not having the guts for the open mic. I coulda done my Groucho Marx imitation. “These are my principles! And if you don’t like them…I have others…” ■

The Place: Nunzi’s Cafe, 1255 University Avenue, between Richmond and Vermont streets, 619-955-8450

Prices: Meatloaf panini, with Angus beef or turkey, $7.50; chicken bacon panini with cheese, $7; prosciutto panini, $8; stuffed chicken breast, sides, $10; beef stew, $10; vegetable ratatouille, $8

Hours: 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., Tuesday–Friday; 9:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., Saturday, Sunday; Closed Mondays

Buses: 1, 7, 10, 11

Nearest bus stops: University at Vermont (1, 10, 11); University at Park (7)

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Ed Bedford March 21, 2012 @ 5:40 p.m.

Ooops! The photo up top of Cali and owner Nunzia has been mislabeled. Nunzia is on the right. Sorry Nunzia!


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