It sounds like the plot of a major motion picture. An Italian boy grows up working in his parents’ restaurant in the famed Tuscan hill town of Cortona. As a young man he visits America, falls in love, and soon marries an Italian-American from the Hudson Valley. On their way to happily-ever-after they encounter one little problem: He longs to bring the lifestyle — and, especially, the food — from his native land to his new home. Before we know it, he joins up with a new Italian restaurant in the then-sleepy city of Hudson — and sets out to transform it into a little slice of Tuscany-on-the-Hudson.
It was nine years ago that Max Cenci joined owner Roy Felcetto at Ca’Mea, Felcetto’s fledgling Warren Street eatery, and the duo has never looked back. Over the past decade, they’ve built one of the premier Italian restaurants in the Valley — with a reputation for stellar service, good Northern Italian cuisine, and an unbeatable ambiance. And while Cenci acknowledges that the many trendy new restaurants that have since opened in now-hip Hudson have given them a run for their money, he has a loyal customer base. “They seem to appreciate the food,” he says.
Particularly the homemade pasta. “We make three or four different pastas a week,” says Cenci. “We do anything: ravioli, pappardelle, gnocchi.” Other menu favorites include “lamb chop ragu, a really nice wild boar chop, and the osso bucco — people go crazy when I make that one,” he says.
Pistacchio encrusted quail (left) is served over a bed of risotto and sautéed kale and finished with balsamic glaze. Ca’Mea’s staff: standing (left to right) are cooks Hector Vincente and Roberto Coxaj, and manager Bridget Bullard; seated (from left) are chefs Roy Felcetto, Timothy Storrs, and Massimiliano (Max) Cenci
Cenci says that their clientele is about 60 percent local. But many weekend travelers also make it a point to stop by the restaurant, in part because Felcetto and Cenci also own an ever-expanding inn right next door. The Inn at Ca’Mea is actually nine guest rooms housed in two distinctive buildings. In addition, a new bed and breakfast, with five guest rooms, just opened last month in a Victorian home several blocks away. The inn and the restaurant remain inextricably linked: Guests get a discount at the restaurant, and they often must go to the eatery to pick up their room key. “We have a lot of weekenders from Manhattan,” says Cenci, noting that the Amtrak stop is only a 10-minute walk away. “European travelers, too. And of course, my dad sends people to my restaurant, and vice versa.”
A friend and I visited Ca’Mea on a recent blustery and gray Saturday night. When we came across the double storefront that houses the restaurant, I immediately noticed the old-fashioned curtain that covers the front door. At first I thought: “Uh-oh — dowdy.” But walking inside was a little bit like suddenly waking up in Oz. A burst of warmth and color — and a lively social scene — awaited us.
This dining room, one of two, is decorated in sophisticated fashion with bright walls, wood floors, and a beautiful mahogany ceiling. It was perfectly cozy — but the real action was at the square bar at the end of the room. Here, all eight stools were filled with chatty revelers, some sharing appetizers, some downing large glasses of wine. “We have a nice bar crowd. It’s not young, maybe 50 and up; people who like to hang out and create a connection with a friend,” says Cenci. “We have some regulars who come to the bar almost every night — rain, snow, whatever. Sometimes they have a special request, they want me to do something different for them. I’m always open to that.”
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Before being shown to our table, I snuck a peak at the chic outdoor courtyard. Even in the midst of winter I could imagine the appeal of dining in the two-level garden in the warmer months. “People always comment that they feel like they are somewhere in Italy,” says Cenci.
I had that “Uh-oh — dowdy” thought once again upon seeing the menu. The old-school presentation made me fear that we were dealing with a mom-and-pop red sauce joint; but that was not the case. Our somewhat nervous but incredibly friendly waiter rattled off a long list of specials and happily answered a slew of questions before bringing us two glasses of a very nice Pinot Noir. The wine list is small, but well-chosen and moderately priced. Although there is no draft beer, they do serve several interesting bottled varieties.
For appetizers, we opted for a grilled shrimp special — served with grilled tomatoes, asparagus, and a touch of truffle oil — and the Bresaola della Valtellina. Both were excellent (and were served in very ample portions). I’m a huge fan of bresaola; I love the purplish hue of this thinly-sliced, salt-cured beef and the fact that it is so lean that you can rarely find even a tad of fat. The mound of beef, imported already cured from Italy, came with fresh arugula and a zesty lemon vinaigrette. We agreed it was the best we had ever tasted.
Next, we split the arugula salad, which was also quite large. Served with oranges, apples, and shaved Pecorino in the same lemon vinaigrette, it simply burst with flavorful freshness. For the entrées, my companion ordered a pork loin special, which was stuffed with spinach and several types of cheese. It was quite good — we devoured all of it — but it simply paled in comparison to my choice of house-made pappardelle pasta with sautéed porcini and shiitake mushrooms. Prepared with a little white wine, garlic, olive oil, and fresh thyme, it was simple and spectacular at the same time.
The tiramisu at Ca’Mea is legendary. “We make it fresh every day, sometimes twice a day,” says Cenci. The secret, he says, is to select the right ladyfingers and then to get the “perfect mix of sugar and Mascarpone.” It was delicious — light and airy with the perfect cocoa kick. It was just a tad too sweet for my taste, but I’ll happily try it again. The mixed berry tart was dry and disappointing; like all the desserts except for the tiramisu, it was supplied by an outside company. But that is about to change. One of the bartenders is a recent CIA pastry grad, and she will soon begin baking most of the desserts in-house.
A whole new line of desserts? It sounds like the perfect excuse to visit Ca’Mea again very soon. But really, no excuses are needed.
Lunch and dinner Tues.-Sun.
Appetizers range from $12-$14, entrées from $18-$25