I am, dear readers, somewhat hesitant to tell you about the Moonlight Café in the small borough of Dover in central York County, which I visited as part of my ongoing (and often fruitless) search for real Italian in Central PA.
For one thing, I don’t want to reload controversy that spread from Dover a few years back when its school district gained national attention and a federal court case for trying to teach “intelligent design,” a.k.a. creationism, in science classes.
My interest is more culinary than judicial.
For another, I’m not so sure you’ll believe what I say about the cafe, and if you do, I fear too many of you might go there and inadvertently tilt the delicate balance it maintains between Italian country peasant quaint and downright annoying.
But, what the heck, let’s give it a go.
The first thing you notice if you eventually manage to find the place (get out your GPS or call up Google Maps) is, there doesn’t seem to be much parking, which is strange given what a small town it’s in.
It sits just back off the main drag through this hamlet of (at last completed census count) less than 2,000 souls. It’s tucked between a couple of car lots. And there’s a small lot right in front of the cafe, or if you’re careful you can slip your vehicle around a narrow path to the back, where there’s a little more parking. But the first impression is, boy this looks like an old roadside pizza parlor where too many people are trying to pick up their take-home pies at once.
But if you find a spot and get to open the cafe door? Well, then you get hit with an aroma that’s proof positive you’ve found the kind of place you (actually I) have been looking for. This is a real Italian restaurant. And, trust me, it smells like one.
Now let me be clear: It’s conveniently located near nothing. There are no four-lane roads nearby. It doesn’t have a liquor license, it doesn’t take credit cards, and it doesn’t take reservations. Oh, and it’s very small.
When I went, it was packed, and there were people waiting, even though there’s really no place to wait except outside or in your car — if you can find a place to park. The 14 or so tables were full. And the place was bursting with life. There was laughter and Italian music and all-in-black-clad servers flying around with large white plates of pasta — plus there was that aroma.
And the topper, the show-stopper? That would be the white-haired owner and chef, Vito Renda, literally dancing at a large gas stove in the open and visible cafe kitchen, working away with pans of pasta and various sauces, and tossing around veal and shrimp, all with a fervor usually reserved for paid public performance — and all under the watch of a wall-hung portrait of St. Pio of Italia.
Someone could make a movie here.
The food is all made to order. You can watch it travel the very short distance from stove to table, literally steaming. There’s more variety than you can imagine. Prices are extremely reasonable. And everything I tasted was delicious.
There are small plates such as bruschetta, crab dip and calamari with fresh marinara sauce, ranging from $5 to $11; soups, including a soup of the day and Italian wedding soup; large salads such as antipasto, Caesar and pear-and-walnut, priced from $7 to $8:50; and paninis such as Tuscan Italian chicken or smoked roast beef in the $5 to $6 range.
There are daily specials such as lobster ravioli, spicy roasted sausage with broccoli and bacon-wrapped filet mignon. There are several chicken, veal and seafood entrees and, of course, lots and lots of pasta.
Entrees are priced mostly in the low to mid-teens. The most expensive dish is the “house special” zuppa de pesce made with clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp and fish in a pomodoro wine sauce and served over pasta, $25.
Entrees come with wonderful Italian bread (though, shockingly to me, no oil on the table) and a fresh dark green garden salad. After much thought, I chose a nice white calamari/spaghetti dish in a white wine sauce ($14). I chose well.
A dining partner had eggplant Parmesan ($13) over pasta that also drew raves. All dinner portions are much more than generous.
And the choices! Homemade gnocchi, pesto pasta, pasta with clams, shrimp scampi, spaghetti Bolognese, cheese manicotti, tortellini and sausage in a whiskey tomato cream sauce, puttanesca and pasta primavera.
And this isn’t the whole lineup. It’s in addition to veal and chicken Marsala, veal piccata, saltimbocca, salmon or lump crab with a vodka sauce over penne. And in the unlikely event you don’t see something you like, ask Vito. Sometimes, if he’s not too busy, you can build your own pasta dish, or he’ll make whatever you want.
I had a cannoli drizzled with chocolate for dessert, and a wonderful espresso.
The place is wonderful. But if you find it and eat there, just don’t tell anybody.
4140 Carlisle Rd., Dover; BYOB; cash only; no reservations; seats 40; kids’ menu; 717-292-5643.
Published in Phantom Diner
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