Cafe Notte celebrates first anniversary

Cafe Notte will celebrate its one-year anniversary with the grand opening of its expanded dining facilities in Emsworth. Pictured above are Dave Mielnicki, general manager, with owners Jerry Santucci and Dave's mom, Debbie Santucci. Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen

"Believe it or not, but this is going to be finished by the end of next week."

Jerry Santucci applies finishing touches to the drywall work he's wrapping up in the area behind the bar of the new dining room scheduled to open as a celebration of the one-year anniversary of the Ohio River Boulevard restaurant, Café Notte.

The grand opening of the room, scheduled for Nov. 26, marks the latest phase in the development of Santucci Plaza and will feature entertainment by two Pittsburgh legends, saxophonist Kenny Blake and drummer Roger Humphries.

Wife Debbie explains the timeline that has brought their business to its current mix that offers fine dining, working out, along with "toning up," all under one roof.

"I bought the building six years ago from Tracey World of Cycles, which had been using it for storage. At first, we had Curves, a women's fitness center, and that was followed by Sun Kissed, a tanning salon, which was followed by a massage salon.

But then, Café Notte took center stage one year ago.

"I had no restaurant experience, and I was looking for tenants, when my son, Dave Mielnicki, said he would really love to open a restaurant. We thought about it, and we did. Now, he's my general manager, and he works as bartender, too."

Although she had no formal training, Debbie knew what it took to please large crowds out for an evening of fun and good food.

"I used to have two or three big house parties each year. My summer and Christmas parties brought in most of the neighborhood."

Those gatherings provided much of the basis of her restaurateur experience.

"I love to cook. I love to eat. I love good wines. We even make some of our wine -- not to sell, but to give away," Debbie said.

With that intensity of motivation, it was not so much of a leap from hosting private parties to serving the public. But along the way, came a few specialty touches, most notably incorporating the tapas concept into the menu offerings.

Tapas dining started in Spain, where smaller restaurants serve smaller portions to diners who usually punctuate dining by sipping fine wines and enjoying good conversation as key ingredients of a memorable eating experience.

To accommodate a variety of preferences, the restaurant's four-page wine list includes domestic choices, as well as selections from Italy, Spain, Argentina, Chile and Australia.

"We have a new list, a year's work thinking about it -- and sampling, of course," Debbie said.

Café Notte serves tapas, but with larger portions and with an Italian flair that includes the restaurant name that translates from the Italian to English as "Café Night."

Debbie noted, "Several of the recipes are mine, and some are from my new chef, Dallas Goech from Texas."

Among her favorites is Shrimp Mozambique, served over risotto. Also notable: a white chili made with chicken rather than beef, a lobster bisque that follows a recipe that Debbie obtained from the Governor Francis Inn on Long Island, Chilean blue mussels, Kalamata filet mignon, and Sesame tuna.

"And our presentation is important to us. It's gorgeous," Debbie said.

Patrons seated in the original dining room enjoy a painstakingly created ambience, the product of an idea that popped from Debbie's imagination as she studied the vaulted ceiling.

"Let's do a night sky!" she recalls suggesting.

Result: The starry night ceiling that would make Van Gogh jealous, created by bending dry wall panels after soaking them in water, setting them into place below the ceiling, and then dropping fiber optic lights through holes drilled in the dry wall.

A kitchen staff of six and a front staff of eight, many with the restaurant since opening day last year, serve the 52 patrons that can be seated in the dining room as well as the 60 in the new room, which already is being booked for special events.

Hundreds of twinkling lights overhead, the log burning fireplace, good wines, good food, good friends. Top it all off with specialty coffees prepared at the Pavoni Espresso bar imported from Italy, and add to that a touch of casual sophistication. "People come here in jeans or whatever they want. We want everyone to be comfortable," Debbie said.

Café Notte offers a lunch menu, 11a.m.-4 p.m., and a happy hour, 4-6 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday, with discount drinks and half off on the chef's choice of tapas.

Prices are moderate; major credit cards accepted.
For additional information regarding live entertainment offered every Friday night, go to Cafenottepgh. com and click on "entertainment" or call (412)761-CAFÉ.

And for the big party on the 26th, there's no cover charge. In fact, there never is.

Debbie, an avid music lover, said, "The music's always on me!"

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