Our hearts sank when we saw Cafe Papa. It was hard to believe this place could possibly be worth reviewing; it looked like your standard pizza carry-out. A guy in a baseball cap and stained apron stood outside, chatting with a couple in a car; inside, there was a case holding a few cakes, with a kitchen behind that, and no seating whatsoever.
"Maybe we should go somewhere else," I murmured, but right then the man in the apron hurried back in.
"So, you here for dinner?" he asked us in lightly accented English, and led the way up a few steps to one side and through a partially closed door. We shrugged and followed. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a small dining room carved out of the adjoining rowhouse. Italian pop music warbled soulfully out of the stereo, small statuary and a few pictures accented the walls, and the warm smell of garlic wrapped around us like a bear hug. There were only three tables in the room, with another much larger one down a flight of steps. It felt like we'd walked into someone's living room—and, judging by the occasional footsteps we heard going overhead, perhaps we had.
Our host offered us menus and brought us tall glasses of water with lemon. Soon, he returned with two giant plates. One was piled high with three kinds of toasted bread (garlic toast, plain, and cheese-topped), the other with a warm antipasti of spiced zucchini rounds, marinated bell peppers, and steamed broccoli. "We don't mess with some little bread basket here," he said firmly. Indeed they don't.
"So I can tell you our specials, but they might be too weird," he continued. "We make stuff like we eat in Naples. We got tripe. We got chicken gizzards. And we got lentils."
When we asked for a wine list, he asked us if we want red or white; on hearing "red," he began pulling bottles from a small wine rack. "Well, I like this one, it's like a Chianti sort of, and then this one here's a Pinot Noir. . . ." Our eyes would not unwiden; this really was like eating in someone's dining room!
Except that most people don't make such good fried calamari ($7.50). True, it might have been a little overcooked, but the coating was flavorful and crispy, yet so light that you could see the perfect mauve curl of every tendril. The tomato dipping sauce was deeper and thicker than the usual marinara.
"I thought you'd like some salad, too," our host said, plunking down a big wooden bowl full of lemony, parmesan-tossed lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and . . . well, whatever else he'd felt like throwing in. We were nearly full, and we hadn't even gotten to our entrées.
Those tasted homey and came in unfinishable portions. Two big and flavorful meatballs floated on an ocean of spaghetti; if the meatballs had just been warmed a little more thoroughly, this would have been perfect ($9.95). Baked eggplant topped with parmesan, tomato sauce, and mozzarella was soft and hearty ($12). Tender chicken cutlets were given a tangy sweetness by artichoke hearts, bell peppers, and a white-wine sauce ($12.50). And that tripe ($15)? Meltingly tender, like butter on the tongue.
We only had room for one dessert between the four of us. But did we want the classic tiramisu ($4.95) or the chocolate one? Our host watched us debate, then said, "I'll take care of it." When he returned, he bore a sample of each (though if these were half-portions, I don't recommend trying to eat a full one by yourself). Full as we were, we finished both of them, and then stumbled back into the night, still wondering how a simple pizza carry-out had turned into such a marvelous experience.
Cafe Papa, 1300 Gough Street, 410-276-0471. Hours: Mon–Thu 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri–Sat 1–10:30 p.m.