Café Castanga
1752 SE Hawthorne, 231-7373

When I was in college, my friends and I would spend all our money on drugs, beer, and text books. Since we couldn't afford to eat, we'd do something called "scrounging," waiting at the end of the cafeteria line to eat people's leftovers: soggy fries, vinegar-soaked lettuce and cabbage, and half-drunk cartons of orange juice. Because of this sad diet, we could hardly wait until our parents came to visit so they could buy us dinner.

With only one fancy meal every six months, Castagna was our favorite place to go. It's a lot of French and Italian, simply made, but with excellent ingredients and incredible attention to detail. I guess I'm probably biased because most of the times I've eaten there I was almost starving to death, but the meals have been some of the most memorable.

Imagine my joy, then, when I found out that Castagna has opened a new "café"--a baby restaurant attached to Castagna called Café Castagna. The menu and alcohol selection aren't nearly as comprehensive as Castagna proper (they don't even have any beer on tap), but they're all good. The starters range from oysters on the half-shell with mignonette to cheese plates with brindamour cheese and olives, and the entree list features stand-bys like pizza and hamburgers as well as more traditional, Castagna-like dishes like bouef bourguignonne with noodles.

The dishes are just as consistently, Castagna-ly excellent. The hamburger, for example, is one of the best I've ever had--beef that's a rosy, medium rare, sweet and smoky, and capitalizes on the taste of quality meat rather than masking it with tons of condiment and salt. It's served simply, with sides of lettuce, tomato, and onion, and topped with a few delicate slices of sweet, yellow pickle. Oh, and the fries. Brine-soaked before they're cooked, they're served hot and crisp, with almost no detectable, excessive grease.

Similarly, the grilled pork skewer was some of the most tender, toasty swine I've tasted lately. Simply flavored and grilled, the beauty of the dish is the quality meat and talented cooking. Café Castagna was just as good as Castagna, even when I'd been eating un-recycled meals.