“East Rock is really spoiled,” says Chris Mordecai, owner of Café Romeo on Orange Street. “We have so many delis, cafés and restaurants.” But that feeling of abundance retreats in the winter months, as most of the cafés only offer outdoor seating.
Indeed, a January stroll along that stretch of Orange, the heart of the neighborhood, can be a little bleak. Clusters of empty tables line the sidewalks, as bare as leafless trees, left behind by a community of café lovers in near-hibernation for the season.
Fortunately, they’ve still got Café Romeo to lure them out. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the place—especially at this time of year—is its indoor seating accommodations, with a pizza oven serving as a cozy hearth.
“Pizza and coffee are my two favorite things about this place,” says Mordecai. The latter was a big part of his inspiration for opening the business in 2009. “I live in East Rock and I love the neighborhood, but frequently friends and I would want to get a ‘real cup’ of coffee, and, aside from Lulu’s [which closes at 5 p.m.], there was no place to do that, especially not at night, or where you could take a laptop and sit and work for a couple hours.”
Mordecai decided to create a spot to do just that, quitting his project management position at AT&T and enlisting business partners Bruno Massaro (a longtime friend) and Romeo Simione, who owns Romeo & Cesare’s down the street and is the namesake of this spot, too.
The trio worked with architect Paul Fioretti to reference and incorporate current trends in European cafés, such as a curved ceiling framework above the ordering counter and recessed lighting. The Key Lime pie-green that appears in the café’s logo also colors the walls, contributing to a contemporary, modern feel. The art changes monthly, in turn changing the atmosphere. Mordecai pulls from a long list of artist requests to display in the space. “It always looks a little bit different when a new artist comes in; it gives the café a fresh feel.”
Fresh could be Romeo’s mantra. Chef Kyle Linehan and two full-time bakers, Sam Swenor and Sean Madden, daily whip up batches of muffins (blueberry is a bestseller), cookies and brownies, with vegan and gluten-free options. Coffee is organic, fair-trade, freshly roasted and delivered from Sun Coffee Roasters in Plainville, with three custom Café Romeo blends (house, dark, decaf) and a single origin variety that changes often. Nothing is frozen or canned, aside from the cans of hand-picked Sclafani tomatoes used to make the pizza sauce.
Pizzas can be ordered gluten-free as well, and toppings range from local favorites like the Patate E Pancetta (mashed potato and bacon), to comfort options like the Buffalo Chicken pizza with gorgonzola and blue cheese dressing, to the exotic Hawaiian with black forest ham and pineapple, to The Vegan, with dairy-free mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, spinach and mushrooms. For lunch, you can order by the slice depending on which pies happen to be hot out of the oven.
Menu items change seasonally, like the Mango and Jicama salad in the summer versus the Grilled Butternut Squash and Apple salad currently available. Salads are massive, colorful, and chock full of so many toppings you initially have to search for a sign of the greens buried below. The Goat Cheese & Fig is another favorite. With candied walnuts, dried apricots and balsamic, it’s a sweet choice. But the Chicken salad is the most popular, with dried cranberries, apricots, currants, blueberries and a house-made mayo, white wine and apple emulsion for dressing.
Frittatas are made using muffin molds for a genius serving style that’s incredibly edible. The Sausage Frittata is savory, packed with crimini mushrooms, Romano cheese, red roasted peppers and onions, then topped with ricotta cheese as a dollop of the would-be icing on top of it all. It was filling enough to serve as a brunch on its own, a bargain at only $4.
Lunch and dinner prices are just as reasonable. Most sandwich, panini and salad options fall in the $7-$9 range, pizzas in the $6-$17 range, and side items from the cold bar and hot bar available in small, medium or large sizes from $3.50 to $8.50.
All of which makes for a tasty and affordable antidote to winter café withdrawal.
534 Orange St, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Jane Rushmore.