Next time you’re in Italy …

The old man sitting at the table outside of Café Napoli was maybe 80 years old. Silvery-white hair, right arm hanging limp, possibly because of a stroke. A glass of white wine sat in front of him. The setting sun bathed the front of the Carmichael restaurant in a rosy glow. The old man blended in well with his surroundings, and the Junebug and I paid him little attention as we arrived for a late dinner on a Saturday night.

We were hankering for Italian food, but discovered at the last minute that a restaurant a friend had recommended was no longer in business. Café Napoli, which serves Italian food with a Mediterranean influence, was roughly in the same neighborhood, and while there was a pretty fair crowd on hand at 7:30, we had no problem getting seated.

Café Napoli’s strip mall interior has been made over in the grotto fashion. Thin columns topped with spider plants and ivy demarcate the entranceway; the open kitchen, where the assistant cooks can be seen throwing pizza crust into the air, is set back from the dining area so as not to distract. There’s a wine bar done in fake brick next to the kitchen and the back wall has a fake living room and upstairs window to make it look like one of the quaint stucco houses you can see in the paintings of Italian street scenes hanging on the restaurant’s other walls. The room has a dark, cozy feel; it’s the kind of place you can relax in.

We got things started with long strips of crunchy, chewy flat bread sprinkled with poppy and sesame seeds, dipped in balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Escargot arrived shortly thereafter; the half-dozen snails were meaty and succulent, but the melted butter they were served with was devoid of the advertised garlic. A solid, if not perfect, beginning.

We split a small Caesar salad, which was more than plenty for the two of us. The salad had the thickest, nubbiest leaves of Romaine I’d seen in a long time; the rather nondescript dressing was aided immensely by optional anchovies, which tasted like they were fresh off the boat from Italy. Or as fresh off the boat as something that comes out of a can can taste, anyway.

I’ll be honest: This hoof-and-mouth disease thing in Europe has given me a little scare. I figure it won’t be long before the supply of beef in this country dwindles to next to nothing. That’s why I’ve been making a point of ordering beef when I eat out lately, and the veal marsala I had at Café Napoli was the perfect example of what we all may soon be missing. Was the creature that gave up its life for my meal raised in a claustrophobic cage and bottle-fed milk during its short and tumultuous existence? That is uncertain, but the veal, lightly dipped in flour, sautéed in white wine and its own juices, and smothered with sliced mushrooms and chopped white onions, was so tasty and tender I wouldn’t bet against it.

Unfortunately, tenderness was not an attribute of the overdone mahi mahi fillet the Junebug received. The fish, purportedly a kabob, was totally kabob-less, and lack of any discernible seasoning didn’t help its already dried-out status. Optional sautéed vegetables and saffron rice were a minor consolation, as was the forgettable piece of wholesale tiramisu we split for dessert.

The fish was definitely a disappointment, but there’s something about Café Napoli that makes me want to give it a second chance. Maybe it was the old man sitting out front. He was still there as we were leaving, and we struck up a conversation with him. Robert Loesch was his name. He’d flown bombers over Germany in the big war, been shot down twice.

“You related to Winnie Loesch?” I asked him. Winnie used to be my primary care physician until I switched HMOs. She was one of the best doctors I’ve ever had.

“She’s my daughter.”

“She’s my doctor!” I said.

The old man beamed, and this tiny little planet didn’t seem like such a bad place after all.