Still, that was a small glitch in an otherwise lovely evening, and our second visit was equally satisfying, partly because we felt better knowing what to expect. We were seated in a more comfortable table, nestled in a corner. This time, we opted for different starters — antipasti of lightly fried strips of zucchini, zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella, and salty ricotta salata ($12.99). Proving the adage that adding bacon can make anything delicious, I was smitten by our second appetizer of tender-roasted Brussels sprouts topped with salty pancetta ($4.50).

Once again, the pasta was the highlight. We shared pappardelle Bolognese, a carbohydrate celebration of fresh pasta ribbons gently tossed with meaty tomato sauce. Any acidity of the tomato sauce was balanced with sweet bits of carrot, rounding out the flavors of the dish.

As our entrées were being prepared, intoxicating scents of rosemary and garlic came wafting from the kitchen just a few feet away. We could watch as the chef placed cast iron skillets into the bright flames of the oven. Despite the promising aromas, the main course of roasted rosemary-lamb chops ($28) and a well-seasoned grilled rib-eye steak ($30) arrived a little overcooked. Once again, I was the picture of inelegance, trying desperately not to look like a grizzly carnivore as I gnawed on the tough meat.

Antipasti of fried zucchini stuffed with mozzarella.
Candace West
Antipasti of fried zucchini stuffed with mozzarella.

For dessert, there is traditional tiramisu, a miniature cannoli stuffed with white and milk chocolate, or one of Marco's self-proclaimed inventions. The birth of one of his rogue sweets was an attempt to accommodate a customer's request for something sugary. He designed a pastry prepared with pizza dough, mascarpone cheese, and Grand Marnier, topped with strawberries. After one taste of the creation, the diner extolled, "Oh man! This is illegal!" That became the slogan printed on the backs of the family's uniforms.

When the check came, I was a little surprised — I'd had a ballpark idea of how much dinner would cost, and it was slightly more: about a hundred bucks for the two of us. But I considered the price fair pay for the intimate experience — and certainly, none of the regulars seemed to have sticker shock.

With its few execution snafus easy to overlook, Cafe La Buca could undoubtedly expand and still draw droves of eager customers. There would be lines out the door. But the Spinas are satisfied with the current pace of business. "We serve 800 people a week, easy," Marco says. "Imagine if it were busier. We like it quiet."

We did too. And that's they key to the café's charm: It's a humble trattoria where you can celebrate good food and be treated like you're home — even if you're far from it.

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