All in the family

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Put bluntly, Caffe Daniela is a bright new casual eatery with uncomplicated but solidly good Italian-American food and eye-catching desserts. It's quite a stylish little place, offers Italian wines, sits across from the Worthington Inn, and is named after the teenage daughter of its owners. But the restaurant lineage doesn't end there, as said proprietors - Joe and Mary Jo Milano - are part of the family of restaurateurs who've brought us such chow palaces as Villa Milano and Milano's Italian Experience.

This new venture is an order-at-the-counter operation, yet its modern and smart design belies that simplicity. Providing decoration for the wood and marble-esque tables are attention-getting touches such as pale orange and brick-colored tiles, translucent panels exhibiting what look like pressed flower buds, and wavy wooden elements resembling flat, wall-bound woven baskets.

Decorating plates is nice-priced, no-nonsense, made-to-order fare that shoots out quickly. Like panini ($4.50/mini, $6.50/large), such as the excellent namesake Daniela.

Pleasingly salty, its soft ciabatta bread was given a toasty ridged pressing and held creamy mounds of fresh mozzarella, good prosciutto, plus a heady layer of ripe, fruity tomatoes. The Americano - fried thick mortadella and melted fontina - gave that hillbilly classic, the fried bologna sandwich, a flattering Italian makeover.

Also impressive was a lentil soup of the day ($5/large bowl). That perfectly seasoned, soothingly textured blend gleaned lots of character from a sound chicken stock, mirepoix and chopped tomato.

Good-valued, Italian-flag-saluting "tri-colored" salads ($2-$6) have used ultra-fresh lettuces, artichoke hearts, plenty of shredded provolone, sliced tomatoes and a terrific, lively, straight-ahead vinaigrette.

There's also a few pastas, some of them of design-your-own ilk, all of them large proportions. I opted for a whole-wheat penne ($xx, arrived al dente) with Bolognese sauce (more like a long-cooked meaty marinara) and a meatball (huge, firm, homey and accented with cheese).

Pizzas ($9 for 10-inch) are made with high-quality ingredients and baked in a stone oven. My zesty Sopressata (delicious, mildly gamey salami) tasted great and had an attractively golden brown edge, but a rather overall flabby crust.

While Daniela has lots of gelati (velvety textured but too sweet), skip those in favor of what must be the Caffe's strongest suit - beautiful housemade desserts.

I enjoyed the Torta di Nonni ($3.50 - lemon custard tart topped with almonds and powdered sugar) but loved the wonderful sfogliatelle - delicate layers (and layers) of crispy golden pastry enclosed a creamy, semi-sweet center redolent of orange peel. These come in large ($3) and small ($1.50) and were easily my find of the week.