The sun’s going down earlier, final papers are beginning to loom on the horizon and the football team lost at Amherst. What’s a kid to do to keep from going nuts with stress and depression?
Take a drive down to Pittsfield to visit the restaurant whose marquee announces itself as “Cafe Heaven,” the restaurant that always accepts I.O.U’s, but never credit cards, the restaurant whose two-page menu has at least seven references to love and kisses. Reservations are a good idea at this Italian/Mediterranean eatery, as it gets very crowded on weekends, but they are only accepted for parties of 4 or more. Prices run $6-8 for appetizers and $15-16 for entrees. If you want a true “stress-buster,” visit Elizabeth’s, where I first understood the phrase “a labor of love.”
Upon entering the restaurant, you will undoubtedly be greeted by Tom, the chef and a genial man who will probably introduce the menu himself if you haven’t been to Elizabeth’s before. Elizabeth, his wife and the restaurant’s namesake, is also on hand, as well as a team of saucy waitresses (and one waiter) who provide good service and – if you deserve it – a smart-aleck remark or two.
As Tom will tell you, the attitude towards food at Elizabeth’s is different from that at other restaurants. From reading the menu and hearing him discuss the night’s specials, I became much more aware of the emotional element that can go into cooking and eating. In keeping with this soulful approach to food, Elizabeth’s offers larger groups the option to cede their autonomy in ordering back to the kitchen and allow the staff to assemble a group of dishes that complement each other – or as our waitress put it, “to let Tom cook for you.” We handed back our menus and gave ourselves over to the mercy of the chef, which turned out to be a wise decision.
Tom started us off with the sopressata, a collection of delicious salami, black olives, peppers, hard boiled egg, asiago cheese and especially fierce onions, all presented in olive oil. It is accompanied by warm bread with a crusty exterior, but I wasn’t sure how to pack everything I wanted onto one piece of bread without spilling it all. The salami’s interaction with my lap had no negative effects on my enjoyment of the opening dish. Once in my mouth, the simple combinations of ingredients made the sopressata a nice transition to the meal.
Our second appetizer, the tapenade, is a spread consisting of black olives, capers and anchovies, all of which are finely chopped, mixed together and served in olive oil. It was just right, not too salty or fishy, and it complemented the sopressata.
Our last appetizer was a tasty baked polenta, served with mushrooms, caramelized onions and some mozzarella in a tomato based sauce. The menu says of it, “really, your first kiss should be this good,” and I have to agree – I wish my first kiss had been as good. It – that is, the polenta – had a pleasing consistency that was soft and yielding while avoiding gooeyness, and the savory accompanying vegetables ably balanced the cozy flavor of the polenta. It was also well placed in the course of the meal, as it served as an appropriate segue to the heavier pastas we would have for entrÃ©es. At this point, any misgivings over letting Tom choose our meal for us had dissolved in unobtrusive wine and fine olive oil.
I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t mention Elizabeth’s spicy cream of tomato soup with corn, which Tom and the wait staff called something that “the Williams kids love.” This description is no exaggeration as far as I have been able to tell, and when I returned to the restaurant later in the week, it was a must. The corn adds a nice texture, and the soup invites you to relax and let it sit on your tongue for a moment to enjoy the flavor. It is nowhere close to being too spicy, but rather it has just enough spice to let you know it is there, and no more. As a whole, the cream of tomato is kind of like a beautiful woman- with a touch of sass and just as irresistible.
Following the appetizers was Elizabeth’s house salad, which was a joy to eat. The excitement of discovering the creative ingredients that had been included made each bite feel like unwrapping a birthday present. Apples, potatoes, raisins, pears and chickpeas accompanied more familiar greens, onions and peppers, topped off with balsamic vinaigrette.
Though I know next to nothing about wine, I would recommend trying something off of the wine list. We tried a merlot, a cabernet sauvignon and a blend of cabernet and merlot, and each was pleasant to drink, with understated flavor that did not impose itself on our palate. Instead, the wine calmly enhanced the experience of eating each dish while providing a nice palate-cleanser.
All of Eliza-beth’s entrÃ©es are pasta dishes, and most are vegetarian. The main exception is the cacciatore, which features the nightly meat sauce special. Our first pasta was the Ajo e Ojo, linguini “tossed lovingly” with a basic garlic and oil sauce, as well as some parmesan. This uncomplicated dish is simply good pasta that satisfied the table while simultaneously exciting us for that which was yet to come.
As we were finishing the last of the Ajo e Ojo, our waitress presented us with the Mariel, a slightly more involved penne that featured arugula lettuce, mushrooms, roasted pine nuts and parmesan in a tomato base. In contrast to the easy minimalism of the previous dish, the Mariel has some stronger flavors, most notably the arugula. This fuller flavor also included an unexpected kick in its aftertaste, the source of which we couldn’t figure out. We couldn’t imagine what pasta could be cooked up that wouldn’t be a letdown after the delicious and fun to eat Mariel, but as we finished up the last couple of wild mushrooms and got ready to order another bottle of wine, our waitress appeared with our final pasta â€“ that night’s cacciatore.
To satisfy a group of college males, who are among the most devout carnivores of our species, with a slate of primarily meatless foods is a profound achievement. And content we were. But when the last pasta touched down at our table, there was no question that it drew the most eager looks of all, despite arriving last after what had been close to an hour of eating and drinking. The cacciatore was a baked penne with chicken meat off the thigh, some broccoli, a bit of parmesan and mozzarella melted over the top. The chicken was tender and succulent, and the long-running partnership of tomato sauce and cheese added another success to their resumes. The pasta was crispy on top and soft on the inside, and there was no question that this was the pinnacle of our meal.
I couldn’t have thought of anything else I wanted if I had been asked, but one final course remained to show us the true meaning of “110 percent.” It was time for coffee and dessert. Two cakes were available, the first being a semi-sweet chocolate truffle cake that was especially rich as a result of being made without yeast. I was rewarded with a sliver of black that redefined my mind’s definition of the word “chocolate.”
Elizabeth’s also offers a rotating variety of cheesecakes that they acquire from a nunnery in New York whose specialty is just that. The cake of the moment was an apple walnut cheesecake which one of my buddies described better than I can: “When I say ‘the best cheesecake I’ve ever had,’ this is what I’ve always imagined,” and I won’t argue. Each bite melted in my mouth, leaving only a memory of sweetness and a craving for the next bite. The cakes were escorted to our table by great coffee, which I always find to be the perfect capstone to a fulfilling meal, and a small sadness because this wonderful dinner was drawing to a close.
Self-titling your restaurant “Cafe Heaven” is a potentially risky move, and a claim to patrons on which it could be easy to default. But when all’s said and done, Elizabeth’s lives up to its billing. This review has been markedly devoid of negative criticism, but my experience there was equally lacking in negative elements, and it would be cynical to think that a heavenly dining experience is not achievable.
While it is not cheap, you get more than what you pay for. The menu tells its reader that “We try to feed more than mere hunger here at Elizabeth’s. . .our collective mission involves nourishing the spirit as well as the body,” and they are true to their word. If you are feeling the Purple Bubble perilously closing in, or if you need a “stressbuster” that lasts longer than five minutes in Goodrich, you owe it to yourself to try Elizabeth’s restaurant.