“Hello, beautiful,” Manolo Guerra says generously as he approaches our table at Cafe Volare in Hollywood. Boy, if you’re a woman in need of a little attention, Guerra will make you feel like the center of his universe. But male customers are also greeted warmly, and it doesn’t take long to feel like a regular at this small, cozy cafe.
Guerra says he named his restaurant for the ’50s hit Volare (“to fly”) because the song is about love. Bite into his chicken cacciatore and he’ll say softly, “It’s made with love.” Talk about a chef with commitment.
A native of Ecuador, Guerra learned much about Italian cooking from his mother, who was born in Milan. He attended culinary school in London, and owned a Cafe Volare on Collins Avenue in the ’90s. He cooked at South Florida venues including Il Paparazzi in Miami Beach and Cafe del Mar in Fort Lauderdale before opening his Harrison Street cafe last year.
Six tables inside and a few more outside are covered with plastic-topped white tablecloths and flanked by a quirky mix of formal dining chairs and casual wicker seats. The charming Guerra and his friendly servers provide the homey atmosphere.
(The educatedfoodie.net blogger wrote in January that when he ordered from Cafe Volare while at the Hollywood Vine next door, the chef was not only was willing to deliver his food to the wine bar, but sent “plates, napkins, silverware, our dinner and warm garlic mozzarella bread.”)
There’s a limited, inexpensive menu plus nightly specials, but don’t bother. Guerra will ask, “What do you like? I’ll cook it for you.” Because he makes everything, often to order, the pace can be slow.
Yet you’ll be grateful the chef makes his own bread, a base for complimentary bruschetta, a bright snack melding the sweet-acid bite of tomatoes with garlic, fresh basil and a touch of balsamic vinegar. On another visit, the bread was topped with melted Parmesan and mozzarella. His baking skills also are evident in house-made empanadas and pastilitos, which are popular at breakfast and lunch. We wonder if Guerra ever sleeps.
While the cuisine is primarily Italian, Cafe Volare offers smoked salmon, cream cheese and bagel at breakfast, and a frequent dinner special is saganaki, or Greek flaming cheese. (You are, of course, expected to shout “Opa!” when he sets it afire.)
We asked about an entree of chicken marsala, but Guerra suggested his homey chicken cacciatore. The delicious half chicken on the bone was cooked with onions, peppers, mushrooms and white wine, framed by boiled potatoes and steamed carrots and served with spaghetti in a light tomato sauce.
Our generous plate of Lobster Volare brought half a steamed Maine lobster in the shell with mussels, shrimp, lots of lemons and spaghetti in a fra diavolo sauce. It’s flavorful, but we didn’t get the devilish kick of chile peppers, so let Guerra know if you like more heat.
Th chef makes his own gnocchi and ravioli with a variety of fillings. The spinach and Parmesan ravioli was light and elegant, served with tortellini and smothered in a rich alla vodka sauce. A friend thought the cream sauce in her penne a la vodka with chicken was a bit heavy, and we’d ask for a lighter rendition next time.
Desserts are wonderful. Guerra does an apple tart, ricotta cheesecake and our pick, a heavenly tiramisu made with Colombian coffee plus a splash of amaretto and sambuca, served with whipped cream. We paired it with a cappuccino presented with a swirl of chocolate.
Departures almost always include hugs, as though you’re saying goodbye to a dear friend with a wish to return soon. Like Volare says, it seems as though Guerre’s “happy heart” always sings.