I met a charming woman from Milan, Italy, at a party recently. She was complaining that there are few restaurants in this town open after 10 p.m. like they are back home. I couldn't help her with that — she's right.
She did say, though, that there is one restaurant in Burbank that reminds her of home more than any other: Novo Cafe. Had I tried it? No, I said. A recommendation from an actual Italian? Of course I had to go.
A couple of years ago the space that is now the Novo Cafe was a "dingy sandwich shop" according to my husband who worked down the street. The transformation is lovely. Kitty-corner from the chic Olive & Thyme restaurant, Novo Cafe's garden patio holds its own with a gorgeous collection of potted succulents and enchanting party lights. There are a few tables inside but most people choose the curtain-enclosed, heater-warmed outdoor space.
It's rare that a restaurant's promotional literature accurately describes the food, but at Novo it does. Founder and co-owner Massimo Forti wanted to create a restaurant that serves "the good, simple Italian food he knew so well back home in Florence."
The dishes are not complicated. They're just fresh, handmade, authentic Italian fare, the kind you'd find at hundreds of moderately priced trattorias after a long day exploring the Duomo or Ponte Vecchio.
I've written before that I've been trying to replicate the pasta arrabiata I had near the Pantheon in Rome. It's never been right here in the States — more like marinara with hot peppers added. But, honest truth, if Novo Cafe's isn't right on the money, their arrabiata is equally as good.
It looked watery or oily but tasted neither. No, it had a wonderful consistency and a spiciness that was truly "angry" (the translation of arrabiata) ($9.75).
The tricolore salad was just great ($10). Cold and fresh with shaved parmesan and house-made lemon vinaigrette, we ate it to the last morsel. My friend got the evening's special — Salad Tagliata ($17.00), another tasty salad with aromatic toasted sliced almonds and beautifully seared sirloin. He said it was even better leftover the next day.
We were kind of surprised that the pizza disappointed us. I think people are spoiled by all the wood-burning pizza places around town that crank out amazing pies. Novo's pizza calabrese was good but not amazing ($11.50). Nor was their panino, in my opinion.
I loved their soup of the day though, a blended vegetable puree heavy on Tuscan kale. I had it when I went back for their lunch special ($10 to $12.50 for soup and panino or pizza and salad). I wanted to see if it was more crowded at lunch than dinner. Predictably it was. Novo Cafe is smack dab in the middle of the Media District.
I'm guessing their breakfasts are popular too. Omelets, cappuccinos and Italian mimosas are some of the offerings — motto Italiano.
High-nutrition versions of most dishes are available including organic whole wheat fettuccine and gluten-free penne and spaghetti. There are good-looking quinoa and kale salads too. Entrees like wild salmon and Tuscan burger steak can come with broccoli and cabbage tossed in garlic and olive oil instead of fries.
Sounds like this would be an expensive place but the prices are pretty reasonable. We did pay $80 for three of us at dinner but that included a bottle of wine. Because it's a pay-at-the-counter situation, tips are discretionary.
Don't come to Novo Cafe if you want super cheesy lasagna or endless garlic bread. Come here for fresh house-made pastas, fragrant salads and maybe a slab of tiramisu for dessert.
What: Novo Cafe
Where: 3900 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank
When: Monday through Wednesday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; closed Sunday
Prices: breakfast $2 to $9; lunch, $10 to $12; dinner $7 to $17
More info: (818) 566-6686, novocafe.com