And just like that, I found myself back at a restaurant, sitting at an inside table, a mere 381 days from the last time.
It’s not like I’ve been shirking for the past 54 weeks. Throughout the pandemic I’ve maintained an out put of an average of two restaurant reviews each week (about double that of any other local publication, I might add). But just as restaurants shifted to takeout and delivery service, I, too, adjusted my reviews to focus on the new way we dined out, which meant dining in. But now, nearly 10 weeks past my second vaccination, I think I’m ready to get back in there.
Please note, I’m not yet advocating for a full return, at least not for everyone. Those who are not vaccinated are a risk to others, especially to restaurant servers, who tend to be younger and who therefore have not yet been eligible to receive a vaccine. That will change in early April when the state of Florida lowers the age of eligibility to age 16 beginning April 5. But even so, it will take weeks for the newly eligible to schedule the first shot, and then to schedule the second dose approximately four weeks later, unless they’re taking the one-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. Then, a two-week wait for the vaccine to have full effect. In other words, we’re still a couple of months or more away from optimum coverage, but it is finally feeling like it is possible.
So it was a treat to have a preview of what may be to come. And for my first outing, I couldn’t have done better than the 12th anniversary celebration at Tornatore’s Cafe & Pizzeria.
It was just at the beginning of last year, a couple of months before the shutdown, that Denny Tornatore, the owner of the popular College park restaurant, hired Jason Wolfe as his new chef de cuisine. Wolfe’s food wasn’t unknown to local gormandizers. He had previously been chef de cuisine at Cuisiniers Catered Cuisine and Events and sous chef at the now defunct K restaurant.
And then, in May, Tornatore hired Ron James as its pastry chef after James’ award-winning Sugarbuzz Dezert Company succumbed to the pandemic. So I was anxious to see what the two chefs were cooking up and I happily accepted an invitation to dine in.
I focused on the special menu that Wolfe created for the occasion and selected the stuffed squash blossoms for an appetizer. They came to the table looking like deep-fried lollipops or tiny scepters. The delicate blossoms were filled with a creamy ricotta tinged with lemon and sheathed in an airy tempura jacket that had a delightful little crisp when bitten into. They were drizzled with honey that was infused with cayenne pepper, so it added a fiery bit of sweetness.
For my entree I selected the ricotta gnocchi with pork ragu. Soft and chewy, the gnocchi was a nice counterpoint to the stewed pork, all of it swathed in a thick tomato sauce. It was topped with a dollop of herbed ricotta and parmesan shavings.
I couldn’t resist also having a side dish of the house-made Italian sausage, thickly sliced and sauteed with red and green bell peppers and sprinkled with white parmesan. The Italian flag in a side dish.
James had created a special dessert for the dodici, a chocolate cake with raspberry and Nutella icing. But I couldn’t resist the carrot cake, moist, not over spiced, and with a rich and thick cream cheese frosting. Delicious.
Servers – all masked – worked with alacrity. I left with a full sack of leftovers.
But I didn’t leave right away. I went next door to the market Tornatore opened last year and grabbed a few frozen entrees prepared by Wolfe to enjoy later. I had tried some out when the market first opened in December for one of those takeout reviews and had enjoyed them. By the way, Tornatore’s was voted Best Takeout in our Foodster Awards for Independent Restaurants.
Takeout isn’t cancelled. Indeed, we saw several restaurants open in the past 12 months that have built their entire business model on takeout and delivery. But I have to say it was nice to be able to sit inside and have the hot food brought to me, to be enjoyed right there. I’ve missed that.