No pasta, but Italian delights galore

Posted: February 15, 2004

WEST CHESTER — If you don't believe there is a new and improved West Chester, just visit Teca, short for Paninoteca, an authentic Italian caf and panini bar that opened last month.

A clue to how the menu works here is revealed in the restaurant's name. Teca is a combination paninoteca (for Italian-style sandwiches), enoteca (a wine bar) and discoteca (where the stylish night people gather to hear pop music in the late hours).

Located on the shop-lined Gay Street, the place seems no bigger than a shoe box. But even that is true to its Italian roots.

"This is a typical size for an Italian bar," said owner Roberto Guadagnini, a recent St. Joseph's University graduate.

He says there is a good reason there is no pasta on the menu. His father, longtime restaurateur Alberto Guadagnini, owns Trattoria Alberto down the street, where they serve the kind of pasta dishes you expect in a high-end Italian restaurant.

Even so, Teca stands apart for the level of sophistication it demands from its patrons. Nearly everything about the restaurant - from its size and Italian-focused wine list to the contemporary Italian pop music that plays on the sound system - seems lifted directly from some lively bar on a darkened street somewhere in the heart of Tuscany.

On a recent Friday night, the restaurant's beautiful mahogany-fronted windows were steamed from the crowds of patrons who sat at small caf tables or gathered around Teca's intimate 12-seat bar. Already, patrons here have taken up habits of the bar cruisers back in Italy, said Guadagnini, 22, whose family has a villa and commercial vineyard in Tuscany.

For one thing, Guadagnini is amused when he sees his patrons eating cheese and sipping Il Porsecco or Il Moscato, two Italian sparkling wines that come in beer-size bottles.

As for the crowds, Guadagnini said it was an important part of the casual atmosphere. "People like to feel on top of each other," he said.

On my visits, the place was caf quiet, and seemed very spacious. I love the feeling of openness achieved from the horseshoe-shaped bar - which puts some space between the seats - and the visibility of the open kitchen, designed in part to show off the colorful Italian tiles there.

Guadagnini said his main goal was to educate his diverse patron base about today's fashionable Italian bar scene.

It's difficult not to notice, for instance, the eclectic glass chandelier over the bar. The servers seemed trained to respond to inquiries: It's hand-blown glass made on the Island of Murano, Italy's premier glass-making center, they are likely to say.

Oh, yes, the food.

It's easy to forget to mention the menu, in part because of Teca's unusual artistic atmosphere but also because this is a place for light eaters. In particular, cheese lovers and wine connoisseurs willing to pay anywhere from $5 to $8 a glass.

I bring up costs only because the few complaints I've heard about Teca are focused on the price of a single glass of wine. Considering the extensive wine list here, from the new hip Australian wines to imported wine from the Guadagnini family's vineyard, I want to say, "We're not in Kansas anymore."

While light eating prevails here - with no clear division between lunch and dinner - that's not to say you will leave hungry (or that you'll overcompensate with too much wine).

On one of my visits, I could barely finish my calamari salad - a bright and crisp, lightly seasoned offering that received kick from tangy capers and kalamata olives - mainly because my table spent so much time in the "Nibbles" and bruschette section of the menu.

Each item on the menu is numbered so you don't have to risk saying things such as "Al quarto formaggio" or "Taleggio latte crudo." The latter cheese comes with a description typical of the menu: "supple, silky paste with a milky flavor, with hints of grass and herbs."

The description comes close to what the cheese actually tastes like, but at times, I almost wished each table came equipped with a laptop so that I could Google the culinary history of such offerings as gorgonzola dolce, northern Italy's classic blue cheese. It's rather unappetizingly described as "runny with clumps of blue cream."

Still, part of the fun is not knowing what to expect. The olive ascolane - or breaded olives stuffed with gorgonzola cheese - arrived in a double bowl with a delicious, tomato-based dipping sauce.

Our young and cheerful server might have warned us that the oversized olives were very hot. But other than being slightly awkward to eat (pop a stuffed olive in your mouth and you'll know what I'll mean), the olives were irresistible - a word you don't usually associate with olives in our martini-olive culture.

True to Guadagnini's dedication to all things Italian, no sandwich is ruined with nonauthentic bread. The "Rustico" panini I ordered on another visit, for instance, was served with a soft, chewy bread called ciabatta. (That's Italian for slipper, a reference to the bread's shape, not its old, worn character.)

Generally, the only thing missing here, even Guadagnini concedes, is hoards of young Italians chatting on cell phones.

Contact suburban staff writer Catherine Quillman at 610-701-7629 or cquillman@phillynews.com.

Teca

38 E. Gay St., West Chester. 610-738-8244

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Closed Sunday.

The menu: Light fare is the operative term in the stylish, 30-seat Italian caf and panini bar, including cheese plates, mini Italian toasts and club sandwiches, and bruschette. There are also an extensive wine selection and plenty of caffetteria, or gourmet coffees and teas.

I'll have another: Although the menu is selective, there is a diverse mix of aged and fresh cheeses and cured meats that are guaranteed to introduce you to a range of tastes. Selections that are relatively rare - even in upscale Italian eateries - include the paper-thin, cured filet mignon and classic ham bologna, as well as cooked and aged prosciutto. There are no real appetizers on the menu, but several items go well with the salads and sandwiches, from a simple bowl of olives to breaded olives stuffed with gorgonzola cheese. Unusual panini include Nordino, made from Austrian "speck," or cured ham; Adriatico, or Italian tuna; and Saporita, made from Genoa salami. To end, don't look for the standard tiramisu. Try Tart Tatin, made with caramelized apples and served with vanilla gelato. For a real discoteca, or disco, mood, Italian-style, there's even espresso served with grappa.

How much: "Nibbles" and Italian "toasts" and bruschette, $3 to $6.95; entre-size salads, $6.95 to $9.95 (with buffalo-milk mozzarella); selection of cheeses, $7.50 to $14.50 (for a choice of seven cheeses). All major credit cards are accepted.

How loud: The sound level varies here as much as the menu. It can be caf quiet, but on late Friday and Saturday nights, think discoteca.

Reservations: Reservations are taken only for parties of six or more. Warning: It's often standing-room-only on late weekend nights.

Children's menu: No, although children might find something they like at lunchtime. In the cocktail hours, children would be out of place.

Smoking: In keeping with the enoteca (Italian wine bar) tradition, smoking is allowed throughout the restaurant.

Facilities for handicapped: Yes.

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