Downtown’s Cafe 8 1/2 is reinvented as Soffritto

Talking to Robert Warner, you get a sense that this chef is small kine crazy. He named his former restaurant Cafe 8 1/2 — after Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film about a director whose creativity is stifled — and scrawled on the wall, “20 years Consistent Winner of No Awards. Grazie!” But when you looked around the dining room of 8 1/2, you saw that every eclectic detail, from the black chalkboard walls to the weathered furniture, had been evaluated and incorporated into the space. You realized that it’s not madness brewing in Warner’s head, but pure creativity.

Soffritto is a new addition to downtown by a familiar couple, Robert and Jali Warner of the former Cafe 8 1/2.

Having discovered Cafe 8 1/2 in my college days, I always found comfort in the enormous panzanella salad and the rich, satisfying carbonara. Anything Warner ran as a lunch special, whether it was porchetta with garlic mashed potatoes or a tomato-ey rigatoni pasta, I got on principle as it was consistently delicious and filling.

Then in December 2016, Warner and his wife Jali made national headlines for their handwritten note banning Trump supporters from the restaurant. Cafe 8 1/2’s pages on Yelp and Tripadvisor got spammed with inflamed reviews. My phone blew up with notifications due to the number of posts I had geotagged at the restaurant and I received nasty messages from total strangers, just for posting my lunch. It was crazy.

If there’s a special, get it. They tend to change daily, so what I had may not be available when you go. That’s part of the thrill.

In June, 8 1/2 closed. Now, happily, Warner’s eclectic style and finesse have found their way to Pauahi Street, steps from Fort Street Mall. Soffritto is a smaller space with the same cozy charm — it’s where you want to be with a hearty bowl of puttanesca when rain starts pouring outside. Tables are communal and the menu has both eat-in and takeaway options, while beverages are self-service.

We thought the furniture looked familiar when we passed by about a month ago.

What has changed is the menu — a bit. Warner didn’t want to limit himself to one cuisine (Italian) as he had with 8 1/2. He says that Soffritto traces its origins from all over. The restaurant’s namesake is a mix of aromatic vegetables cooked in olive oil that forms the basis of many dishes. French cooking has mirepoix (carrot, onion and celery); the Cajun/Creole version has onions, bell peppers and celery. The last is an overtone we picked up on in dishes like jambalaya, shrimp etouffee and a New Orleans-style sandwich similar to the muffaletta, but diehard 8 1/2 fans need not worry: Pasta staples like 8 1/2’s puttanesca, radiotore verde and carbonara have found a home at Soffritto.

The jambalaya ($12) is hands-down the best item we tried.

Warner’s jambalaya is cooked perfectly and has so much going on: Soffritto, andouille sausage, tomatoes, Gulf shrimp and rice meld together in a spiced gravy that sends your mouth off the rails. If you’re not sure what to get, let this entree be your introduction.

The pressed New Orleans Italian deli sandwich was stacked with salume, provolone, olives, red pepper, greens, pesto and sun-dried tomato on house-made French bread.

Cross-section of the sandwich. It’s actually thicker than you think.

If I were in a hurry or needed to eat lunch at my desk, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up an Italian sandwich. It’s the tanginess of the olives with the pesto that brings it all together.

The Gulf shrimp etouffee aka shrimp smothered in gravy is another classic Creole and Cajun dish.

Soffritto’s shrimp etouffee starts with a brown roux, a thickened flour and butter base, and incorporates lots of celery, onion, spices and plump Gulf shrimp. At $17 it is another hearty dish worth trying. You have a choice of starches; we liked it with rice.

You can’t go wrong with one of Warner’s pasta specials – here, Gulf shrimp meet a cream sauce with peas and spices ($17).

The shrimp in this pasta are just so easy to eat! Plump and not overcooked, they have a perfect springy bite and go well in the creamy sauce with angel hair pasta.

Don’t be surprised if the menu is completely different when you go; in fact, you should expect new dishes day to day because that is just how Warner works. It’s his masterful seasoning and never-ending stream of new ideas that make Soffritto worth many more repeat visits.

Soffritto is next door to Doner Shack in the former Yum Yum Thai spot.

73 S Pauahi St. (Fort Street Mall)