Lakewood's Cafe Jordano has gotten some love on these pages before, from a series of Best Of awards (including 2009's Best Strip-Mall Italian Restaurant) to a glittering review in 2004 by Jason Sheehan. It deserves all of those accolades. But I like the place for a different reason -- although the daily specials rarely feature herbivorous fare, the vegetarian menu items are clearly marked and taste divine.
If you don't show up right when the restaurant opens, there will be a wait. Thankfully, if you have a small table, your wait probably won't be as long as quoted. Last week, we were told it would be twenty minutes before we could be seated, and it was more like five. We ended up sharing a six-top with another couple, one on each end, and although we didn't exchange names and phone numbers after the meal, we spent a good portion of the evening chatting with each other about the oil spill in the Gulf, among other things, including the food.
Cafe Jordano is just that kind of place: You don't mind sitting down at the same table as strangers, and by the time you're ready to leave, you've made a new connection.
I don't usually indulge in the antipasto at the restaurant, simply because the meals themselves are filling enough. (I do, however, remember that their calamari -- a dish available only as a daily special -- is both crispy and tender, a fantastic choice for any pescetarians out there.) But they do have a small selection of vegetarian appetizers, including cheese garlic bread for $5, bruschetta for $5.95 and a caprese plate (fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and olive oil) for $7.95.
Lately, I've been hung up on their gnocchi. The perfect little potato dumplings come either with cream sauce or one of those red sauces -- you know, the type you can never get out of a jar, savory with just a hint of sweetness, and you'll mop every last drop up from your plate with the garlic bread that comes with the meal. The male half of the couple sharing our table approved of my choice. "My mother says they make the best gnocchi here," he told me. "And she would know." The red-sauce version gets a sprinkling of mozzarella that's melted over the sauce by the time it reaches the table.
The gnocchi ($9.50 for red sauce, $9.95 for cream sauce) is part of the Primi Piatti menu, pasta served with your choice of soup or salad and garlic bread, and the area of the menu where all of the vegetarian food lives (it's clearly marked with a star). The soups at Cafe Jordano are excellent; they change daily, and sometimes a vegetarian option is not available, but the servers are knowledgeable and have always been happy to answer any questions. So I ordered the salad -- with the house Italian dressing; putting ranch on this salad is a travesty.
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More restaurants should take a tip from Cafe Jordano's dinner salad. It's not too big. It's not too small. There's no iceberg, just fresh, crisp, leafy romaine with ribs that crunch like celery in your mouth. You get one slice of juicy red tomato, one slice of cucumber and the tangy Italian vinaigrette (or ranch dressing, if you're into travesties).
And then the gnocchi comes, and I'm busy chasing the perfectly formed dumplings around my plate, ensuring they're coated with that intoxicating red sauce, scooping up a little cheese and popping them into my mouth. Yes. I can't stop, even when I'm full; this is one plate that never gets taken home with me, so I couldn't even tell you how it re-heats.
My second-favorite dish is the Mediterranean pasta, spinach fettuccine in cream sauce with feta, olives and pepperocini for $9.95 (the cream sauce separates if it's been chilled and re-heated, so stir your leftovers well, or just do as I do and eat the whole thing while it's fresh). The restaurant also offers Sicilian lasagna (lasagna with eggplant in tomato cream sauce), canneloni con spinaci, fettucine alfredo, bucatini alla Puttanesca (bucatini pasta in fresh tomato, basil, garlic and olive oil sauce with capers and black olives), bucatini Colorati (bucatini with garlic olive oil sauce, broccoli, olives, roasted red bell peppers, white beans and topped with feta), penne alla Zingara (a spicy red sauce with olives, peppers, mushrooms and pepperocini over penne and topped with mozzarella) and parmigiana de Melenzane (fried eggplant with red sauce and mozzarella). A side salad on its own is $2.50, and if you do eat fish, our table-mates highly recommended the seafood ravioli, which comes in lemon pepper cream sauce topped with shrimp.
Vegans can always omit the cheese from many of these dishes, including the gnocchi with red sauce or bucatini Colorati, and the bucatini alla Puttanesca is a vegan dish, as is the side salad. For herbivores seeking a homestyle Italian experience, you really can't go wrong with Cafe Jordano.