Open Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 2 p.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Monday. Reservations not necessary. Parking lot. Beer and wine only. Entrees from $4.25 to $5.95. Typical dinner with wine, tax and tip, approximately $15.
Scrunched next to a Hi Gear Auto Discount Center in the middle of a squat, bare-bones shopping center. Caffe Sicilia might easily be mistaken for just another one of those interchangeable pizza-sub feeding stations that ring the Beltway. The mistake would be regrettable. Ther's good, simply southern Italian cooking here, and if the menu doesn't offer much variety (no soups, no poultry, and only clams and linguine in the seafood department), what's done is generally done very well.
If you liik and listen carefully, there are clues even before the first dish arrives that Caffe Sicilia transcends the ordinary pizza joint. For one thing, adults, not part-time teen-agers, run this place, and therehs the conforting sound of the Italian language coming from the family in the kitchen and from the tape player in the background. (The sampling of Italian pop songs might be worth a trip by itself.) And notice the reproductions of turn-of-the-century Italian posters from Milan carefully framed above the cheap plastic paneling, and the sign outside that says "fresh pasta."
So the people, the sign, the music and the posters set a promising mood. How well does the food sustain it? The bread keeps the hope alive; it's the real thing, with a corn meal-dusted bottom crust a good eighth-inch think. The bread's virtues are capitalized on in the mozzarella in carrozza appetizer, "carriages" crafted of hollowed-out Italian rolls, stuffed with mozzarella cheese, topped with anchovy, and fried. This dish isn't as simple to make as it sounds. More often than not, the carrozze served in restaurants are grease-soaked, heavily battered ox carts rather than carriages. But at Caffe Sicilia they're exemplary: shallow-fried quickly in hot oil, lightly crisp on the bottom, and free of oiliness in the center. (Notice that these carrozze can be eaten easily with the fingers, an enormously messy undertaking with the ox cart variety.)
The deep dish pizza could have been spirited in from New York. If your only exposure to this Sicilian specialty has been the pearly-white paste turned out by the chains in this area, the genuuine Sicilian article at Caffe Sicilia may be an eye-opener, an experience rarely available south of the Delaware Memorial Bridge. There's an old fashioned, rough-textured, yeasty quality to the bread, and a wonderful textural transition between the crisp bottom crust and the chewy upper layers. Experiment: scrape away the cheese and tomato and topping, and try eating just what's left underneath. What does it remind you of? A high quality, home-made bread. Bread is what real Italian pizza is all about, after all, and it's nice to be reminded of it every now and then.
If your kids have grown up in this part of the country, they may think that subs are supposed to be served on rolls with the consistency of plastic sponges, the kind you can squeeze next to your ear without detecting a sound. If that's the case, a visit to Caffe Sicilia can be just as educational as a field trip to the museum. Let then discover what a sandwich used to tast like before calcium propionate, dough conditioners and plastic bags became part of the commercial baker's art (or artifice). The subs, incidentially, are served only at lunch, but we've found the management can sometimes be coaxed into making them at night.
Beyond the pizza and sandwiches, the menu runs largely to pasta and more pasta, all made in the kitchen and all good. Notice the ravioli, a far cry from the uniform little shiny-moist squares the commercial manufacturers' machines have accustomed us to. These are big, rough, irregular pasta envelopes, chewily robust enough to let you know you're eating a dinner, not an hors d'oevre. If the ravioli are heartier than most, the tortellini are more delicate, artfully escaping the fishing-sinker lumpiness that often afflicts these little stuffed pastas.
In addition to choosing among the seven home-made pastas, there's a decision to be made on the sauce, but it's a simple one: tomato-based, or cream-based. Don't look for complexity in the sauces here. They're as bright and open as child's smile, with sweet tomatoes, fresh creasm and a restrained use of herbs (grown in the owner-chef's garden, according to the waiter). A pasta standout is manicotti al forno, an unusually flattened manicotti stuffed with ricotta, spinach, coarsely ground meat and bits of ham, and covered just lightly with a gentle blanket of bechamel sauce and a little melted mozzarella. In a fancier restaurant, this finely balanced dish would be well received at twice the price.
A teen-age frien of our recently described cannoli as "an ice cream cone you eat with a fork." She can be forgien the misunde3rstanding, because the ricotta-based filing used for this dessert in many restaruants is so sweet, and served so cold, it could easily be mistaken for an odd variety of ice cream. Caffe Sicilia sets the record straight with a smooth, fluffy cannoli filling that's openly, honestly cheese, with just a touch of sugar and an even more sparing touch of bitter chocolate bits. The filling, apparently stuffed into the shells at the last moment to preserve their crispness, is cold, but not so frigid as to numb the palate. This is the dessert to sample at Caffe Sicilia. The others -- spumoni, tortoni, cheesecake -- are brought, rather than made.
This place isn't all roses, by any means. On one of our visits the bread was stale, and another time the filling in the sausage sub was grossly oversalted. And one night the sauce with the tortellini bolognese had overdosed on nutmeg. And there are eccentricities in some of the prices, with Heineken beer fetching an amazing $2.50 per bottle, and little bar-style soft drinks (mainly ice) going for 50 cents (which is particularly unfortunate in a place that ought to appeal to families with children). But on balance, Caffe Sicilia is a welcome find, with rare, simple, honest treats.