Years ago, John Vitale grew up roasting coffee alongside his father. He learned to cook by watching and helping his mother and grandparents. “It was destiny for me to do this,” he says as we chat over coffee in the tiny dining room of Caffe Anello/Sogno Coffee, the restaurant-cum-coffee shop he owns and operates with his wife Alissa and in-laws Cheryl and Joe Napoletano in downtown Westwood, New Jersey.
It didn’t always seem that way, mind you. Even though he’d had a successful tenure as a chef during his undergrad at Elon, building a following by putting his own spin on the menu at a campus eatery, he never thought a hobby could be a business. Finding himself at loose ends after the 2008 financial collapse, he wasn’t sure what his next move should be, until his mother suggested he return to his first love.
Sogno started as an online coffee retailer. On the last night of a honeymoon that took the Vitales to Paris and Tuscany, John decided it was time to open a cafe. “I had belief and integrity. Getting past the what-ifs is the hard part, because that’s self-perpetuating. And there’s the hours. You’re never done.”
It turned out that he needn’t have worried. Opened in 2012, Sogno quickly eclipsed the online coffee business. A year later, Caffe Anello opened next door, offering real Italian fare, “not Americanized crap,” Vitale laughs. It’s traditional stuff like you’d find at your mother or grandmother’s table for Sunday dinner — fettuccine carbonara, homemade meatballs, ravioli, and rigatoni Bolognese — with several of the ingredients sourced fresh from Sunset View Farm, a Tuscan-inspired farm operated by the Grinthal family in Sussex County, NJ.
He’s also been inspired, and spurred on, by Salvatore Petruso. More than a neighborhood butcher, Petruso cut his teeth running the Jefferson Market in Manhattan before settling in Westwood. “Having that kind of talent around the corner gives me the confidence to be creative, because there’s nothing he can’t do.” That goes some way toward explaining the coffee-rubbed steak and coffee-crusted ribeye that have both been known to appear from time to time (“The coffee brings out the richness in the fat,” Vitale notes).
John isn’t the only one experimenting. Head baker Allan Bastone takes the same eclectic and freewheeling approach to the selection of tasty desserts on offer. Some years ago, Allan was Balducci’s cheese monger, but at Anello, “I get to do whatever I want, and I love it.” That last sentence was delivered as he walked past with a pistachio cheesecake-filled chocolate cake that I would gladly have tried if my stomach wasn’t already filled to bursting with peanut butter and jelly cheesecake (the peanut butter is incorporated into the cheesecake, with a tart jam spread on top), a light and flavorful tiramisu cheesecake, and a crepe filled with rich espresso cannoli cream filling that I couldn’t finish despite a valiant effort.
And have we mentioned the coffee? Sogno’s coffees are sourced from Royal Coffee and roasted on the premises. Over the course of two visits, I sampled two coffees and Sogno’s espresso. My first encounter with Sogno was with the Costa Rican Fruta de Mar light roast. It delivers the scent and taste of hibiscus, a tease of bright tangerine acidity, and a clean finish. The Costa Rican Cafe Rosa was more assertive, with a more pronounced (but still restrained) bitterness that played nicely off a plummy acidity and a fuller body.
From there, I moved on to what may be the best espresso I’ve had yet. Right off the top, there are strong notes of dark chocolate, a trace of cinnamon sweetness, and the barest hint of licorice. I’m often in the habit of adding lemon peel (and nothing else) to my espresso. I didn’t have to here; there was a welcome, if slightly baffling, trace of lemon. As it turns out, this is no accident. Vitale explains, “Just like you, a lot of people ask for lemon with their espresso. So I experimented ’til I got a two-bean blend that gave me that taste naturally.”
Both the coffee and espresso were good complements to The Americano, a crepe filled with bacon, egg, and cheese that picks up where the coffee leaves off. It’s just enough of everything. The crepe is light, the filling perfectly balanced, and nothing overpowers anything else. In fact, “just enough” seemed to characterize everything here. On the one hand, I wouldn’t have minded a slightly sharper bitterness from either the Fruta de Mar or the espresso. On the other hand, once you tuck into a crepe and realize that everything harmonizes perfectly with everything else, that subtlety makes a lot more sense. The coffees here are perfectly capable of standing alone, but they’re also meant to complement the rest of the menu rather than competing with it.
That sense of balance is a rarity. Culturally speaking, we’ve gotten into the habit of thinking that if something’s good, a lot more of that thing would be even better. The result — especially when you’re dining out — is desserts that are cloyingly sweet, appetizers that pile on the salt and spices, and main courses with completely lopsided flavor profiles. Coffee isn’t immune to this, as anyone who’s tasted a syrupy-sweet mochasomething or beans that taste like they were roasted with an acetylene torch will readily attest.
A good chef, on the other hand, is in the habit of coaxing flavors out of their ingredients, letting some elements shine while others are bit players with barely noticed supporting roles. There’s always that hint of something that pokes gently at your sensory memory, challenging you to identify it, and reminding you that for as subtle as it may be, the dish would be poorer without it. Coffee — good coffee, the stuff that’s carefully sourced, roasted, and brewed — does much the same thing. It takes care, but the payoff of that extra effort shows in flavors that you’d never expect from a humble pile of beans.
Vitale’s bristling with ideas. He’s in the process of writing a book filled with memories of Sunday dinners at his grandparents’ table, the lessons he’s learned, and the thread of food and family that ties together all that’s best in his life. There’s a private label line of olive oil and vinegar, a Food Network pilot in the offing, distribution deals in the works for coffee and locally-grown San Marzano tomatoes, and custom sauces. For all that, he’s quick to add that he still hasn’t quite arrived. “The biggest mistake business owners make is thinking they can walk away. They invest the money, but not the time.”
Here, he pauses briefly, as if lost in thought. In a minute he’s back with a grin. “I came into this world with a reputation, and I’m leaving with it.” If his coffee, his food, and his customers — many of whom are regulars he knows on a first-name basis, trading greetings and wisecracks as they walk through the door — are any indication, it’s a reputation he can be proud of.
Visit Sogno and Cafe Anello on the web at http://www.caffeanello.com/
See installments from the web series The Butcher and the Chef, with John Vitale and master butcher Salvatore Petruso