There was a time when the words "Italian street food" conjured one image in my mind—gelato. The treat was all I saw in Italy as a poor college student, not because it actually was the only street food available, but because it was so eye-grabbing and delicious.
Sadly, there is no gelato at Limonata Italian Street Food Caffe (it was nixed from the original menu after the machine broke). Instead, the restaurant has a modest but deeply gratifying conglomeration of quiche, panini, antipasti, candies and pastries. Oh, and some lavish breakfast treats like coconut milk waffles.
This sunny café occupies the sweet spot in The Village at Silver and Wellesley vacated by Café Giuseppe. Giuseppe regulars will be happy to know Limonata still offers killer espresso, now paired with a large array of mouth-slavering Italian treats.
Sitting down with two friends, we load up on true fast food—the antipasti platter for two ($16), a torta pomodoro ($5.50), a prosciutto panino ($6.50), two desserts and three kinds of macarons. This, my little pork chops, is the proper way to get fat. We start with the prosciutto panino. It’s a down-home stack of cured ham, tomatoes, mayo and gorgonzola grilled between whole wheat ciabatta (sourced by La Quiche Parisienne, as are the rest of Limonata’s baked goods). When you’re lusting for Old World farmhouse flavors like salted ham and deliciously tangy dairy, this is your ticket. The tomatoes and mayo impart the right amount of sweetness and juice to rescue the sandwich from savory overload.
This is not a dish you can eat gracefully. Prosciutto (the real deal, imported from Parma) is one of those elastic meats you need to rip apart with your teeth. The tomatoes are juicy, the bread crispy. It's a sandwich that evokes public park picnicking in a tattered sweater, amidst classical statuary and pigeons cleaning up the crumbs.
The torta pomodoro, a quiche laden with chunks of roasted tomato and caramelized onions, is no slouch either. The custard’s mouthwatering creaminess is cut by the thick, bold tack of the goat cheese and smacks of brunch. It’s also a dish you imagine eating in the aforementioned public gardens in the same sweater, but in the morning. (I'm not saying you slept there.)
It's the antipasto platter for two ($16), though, that parades the best characteristics of Italian cuisine in an oily, gorgeous mélange. There’s prosciutto, roasted zucchini, speck (off-the-bone pork shoulder cured and smoked with juniper berries), sweet ciopolline onions marinated in balsamic vinegar, delicate olive nicoise the size of baked raisins, sweet roasted red bell peppers topped with a light tuna salad, herbed goat cheese and ciabatta—all served in discrete stacks on a cheese board palette.
This is the whole opera from start to finish on your plate: creamy, smoky, pungent, sultry, sweet, earthy, tender, crunchy, chewy. The combination of flavors and textures is endless.
We move on to dessert. The exquisite chocolate walnut torte is a cakelette laced with finely ground walnuts, decked out in chocolate ganache. The pear almond torte is equally good, and the imported, bite-sized macarons ($1.50 each) are sheer bliss. A macaron (not to be confused with coconut macaroons) is a confection of flavored cream sandwiched between airy dollops of meringue. Legend has macarons originating in a French convent. How a person could serve both God and these macarons is a question for seminarians.
Now, suppose you aren't a raggedy tramper on a grand tour of Italian streets, nor a poor freelance writer. Suppose you have bank notes to your name and want to bring the best of Italy back to your own kitchen. Limonata has you set with their collection of boutique grocery imports. Offerings include chestnut honey, farro, olives, salt-crusted capers, balsamic vinegar, gluten-free pasta and cookies. The real scene-stealers are candy-colored designer pastas like lingua di suocera (mother-in-law's tongue), a pastel-striped and twisted ribbon; and croxetti, thin, sand dollar-esque medallions stamped with emblems (originally crosses—hence the name).
Is Limonata without fault? There are rare disappointments: You have to strain to taste the lavender in the lavender lemonade, and the croissant I ordered was too dry. But this little Nob Hill oasis is as close to the streets of Italy as we're going to get without leaving the country. Well, minus the gelato.