I have a list of a number of restaurants that I want to try that people have told me about, or ones that I've come across in articles, or ones that I've found out about on television. One of the first restaurants I put on the list is Cafe Dodici, a small, European-style cafe located in the small Southeastern Iowa town of Washington. For our recent anniversary, we made the trip to Washington for dinner at Cafe Dodici.
Considering it's a 70 mile drive from Davenport to Washington, and not knowing many of the particulars of the restaurant - how big it is, how busy it can get, if they need to have reservations, even if they would be open - I decided to call down there the afternoon of our anniversary to inquire if I needed reservations. The proprietor, Lorraine Williams, answered the phone and I told her that we were driving over from Davenport that evening and wondered if we needed to have reservations.
She told me, "Well, no, probably not. But we do appreciate people letting us know they are coming so we can plan our staff needs in advance."
I made reservations for two, around 6:30, but knew that we'd probably be late, so I told her, "Somewhere between 6:30 and 7. But we'll be there."
She asked if it was any special occasion for the evening and I said, "Oh, it's just our anniversary."
Lorraine sort of chuckled and said, "Just your anniversary?"
I sort of caught myself and said, "Well, no, that didn't come out right. Yes, it is our anniversary. I didn't want to make it sound like it's a big deal, but, yeah, I guess it is a big deal." (We celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary that evening. I keep saying that Cindy's going to heaven for putting up with me that long.)
After Cindy got off work, and as I predicted, we got a later start from home than what I wanted. Actually, I hadn't told Cindy where we were going and on our way out of town I told her that we were going down to the riverboat casino in Burlington and eating at the prime rib buffet. I could tell that she definitely didn't want to do that as the atmosphere got pretty frosty in the car. Then to put another layer on the subterfuge, I told her that our old neighbor's, George and Hanna, were going to meet us there and have dinner with us. In fact, it was George's idea that we do that for our anniversary.
Oh, that got her going. She was sitting there stewing for a good half-hour before I pulled off of Highway 61 and took westbound Iowa Highway 92 toward Washington. She still thought we were going to Burlington when we crossed Highway 218 south of Iowa City. She said, "I've never gone to Burlington this way before." I finally told her that we weren't going to Burlington, but to some other place - without George and Hanna, and no buffet. She immediately lightened up with that.
We pulled into Washington around 6:45 p.m. and after a wrong turn, we found Cafe Dodici located on the southeast corner of the historic square (see map). We went into the restaurant and were greeted by a hostess and I gave her my name. She said, "Oh, you're the couple having the anniversary. And you drove down from...um... Des Moines? No, wait! Davenport!"
Cafe Dodici is not all that large, but it's far from being small. I'm guessing it could comfortably seat 60 people with no problem. And not many people were in there that particular evening. There was a table of six rather boisterous and loud ladies seated at a table toward the front of the restaurant. And they were loud. There was another couple seated along the north wall that had a bench seat that went the length of the wall with chairs on the other side of the table. And there was a party of three who were seated back in the corner by the small bar area. The hostess sat us at a table for two up against the opposite wall. Both Cindy and I were facing the other diners in the restaurant and I don't like that - it's like we're on display. But, it wasn't that bad, I guess.
The hostess dropped off our menus and a wine list for us to look over. Our waitress - Heather - came over to greet us and asked if we wanted anything to drink. I told her that we were going to get some wine for dinner and we'd just wait.
There was a lot of artwork on the walls as well as a number of statues throughout the restaurant. Cindy noticed right off the bat the color schemes on the wall. She had been studying the art of feng shui and recently repainted our kitchen, living room and hallways. The living room and hallways are now a sort of mustard/beige and the kitchen is a deep burgundy - the same color schemes that Cafe Dodici employed in their restaurant.
In fact, on the back of the menu, we learned that Cafe Dodici practices the art of feng shui and that the number 12 plays a significant role in the restaurant. The word "dodici" is, indeed, the number 12 in Italian, and the number 12 is a big part of life - 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 apostles of Christ, 12 days of Christmas, 12 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, 12 imams in Islamic religion. The number is considered one of the most significant numbers in life and is said to bring good luck to those who use the number 12 in their lives. In fact, all the menu items end in 12 cents, as in "$9.12" or "$23.12".
The menu at Cafe Dodici skews heavily toward Italian - Lorraine Williams spent nearly 30 years in Italy (more on that later). They have nearly a dozen different types of pasta entrees to choose from, but they also feature steaks, Iowa pork chops, chicken entrees and some seafood. And each of the items on the menu are bought farm fresh and they make their pasta and sauces in house. Cafe Dodici has garnered a number of culinary and people's choice awards since they opened in December of 2004.
I was torn between a number of things on the menu. I'd heard that their specialty dish - chicken roulades - was to die for. They take a chicken breast and roll it up with gouda cheese and spinach, then they lightly bread the chicken, top it with a honey-dijon glaze, then bake it in an oven. The Des Moines Register called the dish "One of the 100 meals you must eat before you die." It sounded pretty damn good.
But they also had a couple pasta dishes that I was interested in. They had a dish called Tortellini Bianco - homemade tortellini shells stuffed with either your choice of beef or cheese (or both!) and served in a parmesan cream sauce with peas and chunks of free range cottage bacon. Oh, man - I love a good tortellini dish in white sauce.
I pared my choices down to those two, as well as their mussels in a white wine and homemade basil pesto with tagliatelle pasta. I love mussels with pasta and the white wine and homemade basil pesto sounded delicious. So, you can see, my choices were difficult.
Cindy, too, was torn between a number of items and it came down to either the chicken roulades and the pasta del mare - a seafood pasta dish that featured mussels, shrimp, calamari, clams and scallops, sauteed and served over a bed of spaghetti with pan-roasted tomatoes and prosciutto. It was then topped with a light white wine, cream sauce. Suddenly, I was thinking about getting that, too!
Our waitress had come back about three times to see if we were ready and I said, "Yeah, we've got to be ready this time or we'll be sitting here all night trying to figure out what we want."
Cindy ordered first and got the pasta del mare and also got a bowl of their homemade white cheddar and broccoli soup. I had pretty much decided against the mussels and tagliatelle pasta, but was severely torn between the chicken roulades and the tortellini. When it came to my turn, I asked Heather if pasta was one of the sides that I could choose from if I got the chicken roulades. She said, "No, we offer basil-whipped potatoes, gnocchi, creamy risotto or a vegetable of the day."
I said, "Is there anyway that I can get a side of the beef tortellini? Even like a half order or something like that."
She said, "Well, yeah. We can probably do that. There would probably be an up charge..."
I immediately waved her off and said, "That's no problem. If you can do the beef tortellini with the chicken roulades, I'll have that."
She said that if there was any problem she'd let me know. I also ordered a caprese salad to go along with the bowl of the white cheddar/broccoli soup that Cindy was getting.
The wine list was not large, but still had a number of wines - at good prices - to choose from. I wasn't familiar with any of the wines at all and had to trust whoever makes Cafe Dodici's wine selections. I ended up getting a bottle of an Italian pinot grigio to go with our dinners.
Since Cafe Dodici gets everything farm fresh, I should have known that the tomatoes in the caprese salad were probably hot-house grown since it was well before the heart of the tomato growing season in the Midwest. The roma tomato slices were a little bland and lifeless. The basil leaves were fresh, but still were a little underwhelming. But the mozzarella was fresh and helped out what was an otherwise pedestrian caprese salad.
Cindy, on the other hand, raved about her white cheddar/broccoli soup. It had a thick and creamy base with chunks of broccoli crowns in the soup. She gave me a bite of her soup and it was very good. It also had sort of a spicy bite to the taste of the white cheddar base.
A small basket of very good homemade bread slices also came with our salad and soup. It was good to dip into the remaining white cheddar broth that Cindy had in her bowl.
Our main entrees came out and we were ready. The chicken roulades wasn't all that big, but it would be enough. And the amount of tortellini on the plate next to it was the perfect size. Enough so I could enjoy the taste of the tortellini, but not enough to fill me up too much so I couldn't enjoy the chicken roulades.
The chicken, to me, was a little over-cooked. The outer shell of the honey/dijon glaze made it a little crunchy, but also a somewhat sweet taste to the meat. But the gouda/spinach filling was a great compliment to the chicken. It oozed out of the chicken with the first cut and it was great to dip the chicken meat into as you took a bite.
The tortellini, however, was perfect. Each little piece of tortellini was chewy with a small amount of beef rolled into the shell. The white sauce had plenty of peas and bacon mixed in with it. It was just fabulous - some of the best tortellini I've ever had.
Cindy initially was neutral on her pasta del mare. It featured ample quantities of medium-sized sauteed shrimp, mussels, clams, scallops, calamari - it was a sea-lovers feast. As her meal went on, Cindy decided that the pasta del mare was very good. "I don't know what I was thinking I'd get, maybe something more of a white cream sauce," she said afterward. "But there was hardly any cream in the sauce." We both found it to be very good to dip bread in, however.
After we finished our dinner, Lorraine Williams stopped by the table and introduced herself to us. She wished us a happy anniversary and asked how our dinners were. We both thought it was very good, even though I didn't quite think the chicken roulades is something to die for. But our pasta dishes were wonderful.
I asked Lorraine how long they had been open and she said they opened on New Years Eve in 2004. I said, "I'm guessing that you're a native of Washington."
She said, "Well, yes, I am. I lived in Italy for nearly 30 years and always had this romantic notion to come back here and do 'something'. I just didn't really know what it was that I wanted to do."
Lorraine told us that she had gone through a marriage to an Italian man, divorced him and married another man - her current husband, Alessandro Scipioni. Williams and Scipioni lived in Florence - one of Cindy's favorite cities that she visited during her trip to Italy a couple three years ago. Williams had gathered a lot of artwork during her stay over in Italy, and much of it is on display in Cafe Dodici.
Williams decided to move back to Washington after the death of her mother and her sister. "When I got back here, I was just appalled at how run down everything was here," she said. "This building, especially, was in bad shape. The outer walls were bowing out. The town square was just really run down. It was really a bummer to see how my town had turned out."
Instead of the usual three months to get a working visa for her husband to come to the U.S., it took about a year. Alessandro eventually made it to the states and together, they decided they needed to "do something". The pair bought the building which was built in 1901 and that once housed the old Choo Choo Grill, a greasy spoon that served burgers and "fries in a bucket." It was the culinary antithesis to Cafe Dodici.
Lorraine told us that they bought the building for $65,000, but put about $750,000 in renovations into the place. "We had to keep some of the steel supports in the walls, but we were able to shore up the outer wall, clean up the place - and it was a pit," she exclaimed.
She told us that in Italy, there are buildings that are over 300 years old there were in better shape than the old building they had bought. "It's the law that you have to keep the buildings updated," she told us. "They just don't tear 'em down and start over after 100 years. They have a much greater sense of history and culture in Italy." Still, she wasn't overly certain what to do with the old building she bought in Washington.
With the help of her U.S.-born and Italian-raised niece, Tsalika Drown, they decided to open their own restaurant. It turned out that Williams' nephew, Adin Wheat, was a self-taught chef who first learned how to cook at the age of 13. He had been cooking at seafood restaurants in New England before Williams brought him to Iowa to be the head chef at Cafe Dodici. Using many of the recipes from Alessandro's family and many of what Wheat had worked with in New England, the family group came up with a menu that was designed to be similar to many of the "fresh daily" restaurants that you can find all over Europe. (Update - I've since learned that Wheat left Cafe Dodici a couple years ago to become the head chef at Cedar River Landing in Cedar Rapids. There doesn't appear to be any problem between Wheat and Williams - he was just looking for another challenge.)
It also turned out that Williams' brother was living in China and he procured the heavy bamboo tables and chairs that Cafe Dodici uses in the restaurant. A number of Chinese statues are placed throughout the restaurant, sort of looking out of place among the Italian artwork - much of which is framed by antique wood frames. The antique chandeliers - one made from wood, the other from metal - were acquired in Florence by Williams and Scipioni. Four of the original ceiling tins are used as a make-shift wall between the dining area and the bar. And part of of the original inside wall of the building is showcased in an arched dry-walled frame with artwork in antique frames. Actually, the only thing that seemed out of place were the somewhat large speakers on the walls. They did sort of stick out like a sore thumb compared to some of the ornate pieces of art that were placed next to them.
Lorraine told us that they recently put in a boutique suite on the second floor of the building. She said, "So, that's an option for people to come down to Washington for dinner and if they don't want to go back home that evening, they can stay in the suite, if it's open."
Lorraine left us to go check on other tables and Heather came back with a dessert menu. Quite actually, I was literally stuffed from my dinner. Although the chicken roulades wasn't all that big, it was very rich with the gouda cheese and spinach stuffed inside. And the tortellini was equally rich. With the caprese salad on top of all that, I was pretty full. But Heather mentioned that in addition to their homemade tiramisu, creme brulee and chocolate kahlua cake, they had a flourless lemon flan as a dessert special that evening. She said, "It's sort of like a lemon custard." She had me at lemon. We took one of those to share.
It was served in a shallow dish and and came with glazed caramelized lemon slices and mint leaves. There was a light caramelization to the top of it, sort of like a creme brulee, and it was absolutely scrumptious. It had a great lemon flavor, but it was so rich. Oh man! I knew I was gonna feel it in the morning.
With a nice tip for Heather, who was attentive to our needs and helped shape my meal the way I wanted, the bill for the entrees (with a very reasonable up charge for the tortellini), the bottle of wine, the salad, soup and the dessert came to a little over $110 bucks. I was very impressed with the prices we paid at Cafe Dodici. It was a lot of very good food at an affordable price.
Before we left Cafe Dodici, we took a look around at some of the artwork in the restaurant. Alessandro Scipioni came up to us and introduced himself. He was a very pleasant man with a heavy Italian accent, but still easy to understand his English. He showed us a large framed sketch drawing that was taken from a 1907 panoramic photograph they happened to find of their building and the town square park across the street. He pointed out their building and the spires of the other buildings across the street from their restaurant. Sure enough, when we walked outside, the spires on the buildings in the pictures are still there today.
Right next to Cafe Dodici is Dodici's Shop, a small little gourmet coffee shop that also sells artwork, chocolate and pre-made sandwiches. It appears that they will have some live impromptu music in there from time to time, as well. We took a look around at some of the things they had to offer before deciding it was time to hit the road back to the Quad Cities.
The citizens of Washington have come to embrace Williams and her family. Cafe Dodici is a destination restaurant for many people in the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City area, as well as throughout Southeastern Iowa. From the decor, menu and atmosphere, you would think it would be a very pretentious restaurant. But it's far from that. It's international cuisine with a comfort food feel to the place. The food was very good, the service was wonderful and we felt welcomed and not just another customer from the time we walked into the place. Cindy decided on the way home that it was the kind of place that she'd love to go back to at some point. In fact, the next evening we were trying to figure out what to have for dinner, whether to make something at home or go out and get something quick, and she said, "Well, we can always go back to Cafe Dodici."