I get the distinct impression that this tiny Italian eatery derives its name from the chill that wafts through it on winter nights. The setting is certainly cozy enough -- two narrow dining rooms modestly dressed in red checked tablecloths, stucco walls, dark wood beams -- but the indoor temperature seems more suited to a meat locker than a restaurant.
The patrons don't seem to notice, though, or if they do, they're not staying away. More than once I saw the same diners sitting at the same tables, probably eating the same meal, and apparently enjoying it. The lone waiter seemed to know almost everyone by name, and if he didn't, you couldn't tell, for he was as amiable a host/waiter/bartender as you'll find. In fact, he seems to have made a habit of sitting down to dine with the regulars, as he did after taking our orders on two recent visits. This is a true neighborhood hangout.
At times, however, food and drink appear to be something of an afterthought. The wine "list" is short: pedestrian brands of white, red and rose' are offered by the glass. The menu, written on a chalkboard, is apt to be no more than one or two soups and half a dozen entrees. The selection varies from day to day, but usually includes veal and fish dishes (flounder in various guises has been the rule), scampi or another seafood offering and an assortment of pastas. You might have to prod to get something other than soup as an appetizer -- an antipasto plate wasn't listed but was nonetheless available -- and the liquor selection might be somewhat depleted after a busy weekend, but I've had some perfectly respectable meals at Coolbreeze's.
Coolbreeze's makes no pretensions. This is hearty, home-style Italian fare, heavy on the portions, easy on the wallet. You won't find any sophisticated cooking here, but you probably won't go away hungry either.
For starters, there might be a relatively light and inviting bowl of lentil or beef barley soup or minestrone. The antipasto plate, if available, is a varied selection of rolled cheeses and cold cuts, sprinkled with parmesan and dressed in a zippy vinaigrette. It was surprisingly good, given what's passed off as antipasto in many higher-priced restaurants. The basket of garlic toast that precedes dinner tends to vary -- one night it was dry and tasteless, another evening it was lightly toasted, buttery and pleasantly garlicky.
Entrees generally are reliable. Crab-stuffed flounder was a nice well-seasoned dish, served on a bed of al dente linguine. And thin slices of veal picata were tender and buttery, served with green beans that smacked not of tinniness but of freshness. A combination platter of ravioli, eggplant and lasagna was rather appealing, served in a portion you'd expect from an Italian grandmother. The ricotta-stuffed lasagna and tender, earthy-tasting slices of eggplant were well-executed offerings, but the ravioli -- chalky pockets of pasta filled with hard cheese -- was lost in the kitchen's translation.
Save room for the desserts, all of which are homemade and many of them quite good. The cheesecake is tops, rich and cheesy, with a thick graham cracker crust. None too Italian but rather novel is Coolbreeze's hot "blackbottom cupcake," studded with chocolate bits that ooze out of the cake as it's eaten. Assorted pies and ice cream also are available.
The strains of classical music in the background are a welcome touch, as are the changing displays of prints, watercolors or oils, the work of mainly local artists.
Those familiar with the Italian eateries downtown might find the menu here to be less than exciting, but given its prices, its congeniality and its location, Coolbreeze's does a commendable job of serving the neighborhood. Just don't forget to bundle up.