The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Restaurant Review: The Silvertron Cafe, Birmingham, AL

In Birmingham, Alabama's Southside district there is a quaint historic neighborhood called Forest Park, home to an interesting collection of unique little shops and eateries. Standing out among the vintage consignment and shoe stores, the intriguing art gallery, and a wonderful natural and organic food market is a little cafe with an unlikely name, “The Silvertron Cafe.”

Located in a building on Clairmont Avenue that once housed a television sales and repair shop – “Silver-Tron TV and Picture Tubes” – the cafe has been operating for more than twenty years, but has recently been acquired by Marco Morosini, a native of Bergamo, Italy who has worked in kitchens from Lombardia in Italy through Paris and on to America, operating restaurants across the United States from Panama City to San Francisco.

Sig. Morosini is to be commended for preserving a little piece of local history by retaining the notable name, the evidence of which is obviously displayed in the form of a large black and white photograph centered on a prominent wall. He is to be further congratulated for successfully bringing an unequaled dining experience to this venerable part of Birmingham.

The Silvertron Cafe was highly recommended to our lunch party of three as not only a good Italian place, but as a good place for other cuisines as well. Now, often when a restaurant seeks to be too many things to too many people, it fails to be anything to anyone. But that does not seem to be the case here.

Although Sig. Morosini is trained and equipped to provide fully authentic Italian meals, he has wisely read his market and realized that familiar and more readily assimilated Italian-American dishes fare better with his clientele. And his efforts to blend Southwestern favorites and straight ahead American staples with his Italian-American offerings appear to be spot on.

Arriving early for lunch service, we initially found ourselves alone in a nearly empty room. But that changed rapidly as within about thirty minutes of our arrival, the sounds of a packed house reverberated off colorful walls gaily hung with delightful art from the aforementioned nearby gallery. The servers were friendly, knowledgeable, and most importantly, ubiquitously efficient, unobtrusively keeping glasses filled and plates moving.

From antipasto options that included a very authentic Tomato Bruschetta, Hummus and Friends Dip, and Cheese and Herb Stuffed Fried Artichoke Hearts, we chose formaggio fritto – or “Fried Cheese” as it's identified on the menu. It was astonishingly good. Now, I know you're saying, “C'mon! Every restaurant on the planet serves fried mozzarella cheese sticks.” But these little cubes of deep-fried cheesy goodness, served with the requisite homemade marinara, were positively transcendent. So flavorful and creamy were they that I thought they were perhaps made from a blend of cheeses. But upon inquiring I learned that they were comprised entirely of a domestic mozzarella produced by a small farm in Tennessee. Note to self: find that farm!

Bypassing a nicely varied menu of salads and soups, our party went straight for the entrees. The ladies opted for American sandwich fare while I, of course, chose from among the Italian offerings. My wife deemed her Crab and Shrimp Cake Sandwiches, served on a bed of crisp lettuce with an accompanying order of fresh-cut fries, to be the best she'd ever tasted. High praise from a woman who has consumed crab cakes in one of Boston's finer eateries. Three portions of succulent, moist, flavorful seafood cooked to perfection and served on pillow-soft fresh sandwich rolls, garnished with sweet tomato slices and crispy sandwich pickles. The rich taste of the seafood dominated, rather than being overshadowed by filler, as is so often the case. From a generous side helping, I snagged a few of the perfectly prepared French fries for myself and would gladly go back to the Silvertron again just to enjoy those fabulous fries.

Our companion delighted in her thick and hearty Hickory Burger, her only complaint being that she made quite a mess with the sandwich's bountiful slathering of smoky barbecue sauce.

On the Italian side, there were a couple of nice chicken entrees – Chicken Parmigiana and Chicken Tetrazzini – to choose from as well as a number of tempting pasta dishes, including Pasta Alla Francesca, Fettuccine All'Alfredo and a Lasagna of the Day, but I ultimately decided on the simplest dish, Linguine and Marinara. Served with homemade bread more reminiscent of soft dinner rolls than a traditional crusty Italian loaf, the pasta was tasty and perfectly al dente. The marinara was rather different. Rich and thick, the sauce was a little more piccante than I am accustomed to in a mainstream Italian-American eatery, bordering almost on being arrabbiata. Don't misunderstand; it was very good, but its spiciness may not suit every taste.

As mentioned, the menu also features a Southwestern selection that includes tacos, quesadillas, fajitas, and a variety of wraps.

We didn't have room for dessert, but a delectable selection of brownies, cobblers, bread pudding, pies, and ice cream sundaes were available.

The owner himself took time to make several visits to our table, seeing to our satisfaction and answering my numerous domande about his cibo meraviglioso. (That most of the exchanges were in Italian was a delightful fulfillment of one of my major requirements for a good Italian restaurant.)

Silvertron Cafe boasts of several specials that are worthy of mention. They serve breakfast on Saturday mornings and feature an award-winning brunch on Sundays. Of particular interest to me is the monthly wine dinner, a $35 per person affair that enables the owner to showcase his true Italian roots. The four-course festa advertised for – naturally – the very evening of the day we were there for lunch consisted of an antipasto course of fagottino di verdure grigliate con salsa al porri, which is grilled vegetables bundled in a crepe and served with a leek sauce. The combined primo and contorno courses were risotto con scampi, and asparagi e zafferano, a risotto with shrimp and saffron asparagus. For the secondo, a brasato e funghi e polenta was being offered. (Braised beef with mushrooms and polenta.) The dolce course was a zabaione con frutti di bosco e noci tostate, a nice a sabayon served with mixed berries and toasted pecans. As a nice touch of community spirit, a percentage of the cost of the meal is donated to a local charity.

Located at 3813 Clairmont Avenue, the place is easy to miss. We had already passed it before we saw it. Look for the aforementioned market, V. Richard's Market and Cafe, on the diagonally opposite side of the street. Open Monday through Friday from 11 am to 10 pm, 8 am to 10 pm on Saturdays, and from 11 am to 9 pm on Sundays. On-street parking is available but somewhat limited. There is also a small parking lot reserved for restaurant patrons within walking distance. Reservations are accepted but not required. Casual dress is acceptable. Prices are very reasonable with appetizers and salads ranging from about $6 to $10 and entrees priced between $9 and $14. Take-out orders are available and a children's menu is offered.

I don't get to Birmingham often, but The Silvertron Cafe is now a definite stop whenever I do. I'll be easy to spot. I'll be the one asking – in Italian – to be carted out on a hand truck.

The Silvertron Cafe
3813 Clairmont Avenue
Birmingham, AL 35222

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