Love's labor is not lost on Marlin Hathaway, friendly host, well-versed waiter, part-time chef, full-time wine guy and owner of Wallingford's wonderful Asteroid Cafe. This loquacious fellow with a loyal following is an antiwar activist with a lust for Italy and the man who gives meaning to this 6-year-old Italian restaurant flagrantly disguised as a funky neighborhood cafe.
It's not hard to get to know Marlin: just show up for dinner. He wears his heart on his sleeve, the Earth on his arm, his sauce on his apron and his political convictions on his storefront window. He's the guy who bids you warm welcome, notes your timely arrival, then sends you back into the rain because your party is incomplete: a practice you were kindly tipped off to when you called for reservations.
Standing outside under a small awning you wait, staring in at 13 tiny tables crammed together. You watch as head chef Jennifer McIlvaine and crew do the too-tight-tango in a congested galley kitchen, secure in the knowledge that soon you'll be in their thrall, nodding to the beat of Chuck Berry or Stan Getz.
Here you'll sit, noting a list of beverages as broad — if not broader — as some of the best bars in town. Never mind that the Asteroid has no bar, nor a bartender. Perhaps you'll start with a well-crafted negroni served in a pretty zigzag-stemmed martini glass. And it's never too early to think about a digestivo, knowing that at meal's end you might choose among a dozen well-aged Scotch whiskies or an equally impressive number of grappa.
Meantime, Marlin comes calling, menus in hand, launching into his seductive spiel. Listen closely to his fish tales. Today he might be touting a ruby-red trout dredged in semolina, pan-seared whole and served with a hash of apple and chard ($18.95). Or "Acqua Pazzo" — black cod swimming with shrimp, mussels and clams in the "crazy water" created when white wine and fresh tomato meet the briny by-product of steamed shellfish ($17.95).
He gives short shrift to salads, instead talking up the Italian cheese selections ($10.95) and tempting you with bruschette — whole slices of grilled bread smeared, if you're lucky, with Kalamata and anchovy, or swabbed with a lentil purée ($7.95).
His discourse turns to a long list of pastas, though he fails to mention that only a fool will resist the spaghetti all'amatriciana ($12.95), whose tomato sauce is reduced with red wine, enhanced with pancetta, spicy on the finish and as good as it gets. Nor does he single out the soul-satisfying tomato sauce soothed with cream, scented with basil, sassy with sausage and clinging to rigatoni ($12.95). Ravioli is stuffed with an intense mushroom duxelle and a multitude of cheeses, pillowed in fresh pasta and swaddled in a delicate, sage-scented butter sauce ($12.95). Of course, you might prefer pasta al forno, in which case the must-have dish is penne tossed with sweet roasted eggplant and sun-dried tomatoes baked with pleasantly smoky mozzarella ($12.95).
Marlin moves on to describe his rotating "secondi" list, which might feature a hefty hunk of marrow-filled veal shank braised and beauteous in a chunky, vegetable-rich Milanese sauce ($26.95). Or free-range venison flank steeped with juniper and herbs, grilled rare and sided with a light, sweet celeriac-and-potato purée in a moat of golden-beet sauce ($21.95).
Risotto ai funghi ($18.95) is a vegetarian sensation, the creamy rice perfumed with leeks, fennel and thyme. The recipe bows to autumn with caramelized squash, porcini mushrooms and saffron milky caps. The mushrooms were foraged on Mount Adams, Marlin tells you then puts in a good word for the kitchen's latest accomplishment, the warm, elegant insalata moscardini ($10.95) — a toss of grilled baby octopus, roasted potatoes, arugula and sweet sautéed onions.
Marlin wouldn't think of stepping away before introducing you to his wine list: 125 labels offering a regional tasting tour of Italy. He motions to the blackboard, where a dozen wine specials start at around $30 and move into the triple digits — echoing the wine list's price points. Overwhelmed? Out of your league? Marlin's your man, steering you toward a reasonably priced Tuscan red when you ask for oomph and fruit under $35, though you'd do quite well with a single-serving carafe of primativo ($6.50).
As you sit playing eeny-meeny-miney-menu, you're presented with a gift from the kitchen: a single slice of rustic bread topped with tomatoes and basil, warm from the grill. The simple flavors floor you. They are a portent of what's to come. A server stops by to take your order. Soon you're delving into a basket of bread and dipping into lemon-infused olive oil.
You can't help but notice that Marlin's "help" is more than deserving of the name — wiping spills from your table between courses, replacing silverware without prompting, helping decide between tiramisu, housemade lemon sorbet and a chocolate almond torte ("Have the torte, it'll go great with the last of that wine!" — and it does).
What's more, the talented team in the kitchen and dining room will make certain that when the boss zips off into the night astride his motor scooter, his little Asteroid Cafe continues to provide an out-of-this-world experience for those he's left behind.
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org