PALMANO’S HAD BEEN KNOWN AS A COFFEE HOUSE WITH AN ATTITUDE. NOW, UNDER NEW OWNERSHIP, IT’S MORPHING INTO A FRENCH-INFUSED EATERY WHERE THE BILL OF FARE IS A WORK IN PROGRESS.
Photograph by Rafael Tongol
Desperate for quick sustenance before a noon appointment, I dashed into Palmano’s for one of those grab-and-go Italian sandwiches that the Italian coffeehouse/trattoria has long kept pre-wrapped in the fridge.
But the Park Avenue stalwart had no pre-wrapped Italian sandwiches. Puzzled, I noticed a handwritten sign on the counter touting a “greens and beans” soup. Who was I to argue? I ordered a bowl and sat to wait.
While observing the dining room from a corner seat, I watched as a middle-aged man with a warm smile and a heavy French accent directed an employee who was tacking up a long paper roster of available coffees, obscuring the familiar chalkboard-like list.
Soup? French? Coffee changes? Something isn’t right.
Or maybe it is.
The man with the accent, it turns out, was Pierre Delrieu. He and his wife Catherine had just taken over this cozy insiders’ hangout, which has been known equally for its home-roasted coffee, its charming courtyard seating and its sometimes haughty attitude.
Palmano’s, which had a rarely mentioned “Trattoria” at the end of its name, offered a limited food menu, but was considered more coffee shop than restaurant. It embraced regulars and shooed away laptop-toting hangers-on who thought that the purchase of a single cup of java entitled them to office space.
Reviews were decidedly mixed. “It’s the only decent coffee in town,” some insisted. “The staff is snooty,” others complained.
Palmano’s has now been dubbed Chez Palmano’s Café, although the moniker may change again once the Delrieus (yes, I know the plural sounds a bit like “delirious” when spoken aloud) settle in. The snug spot still sells various incarnations of coffee, although the couple farms out the roasting chores to a local specialist rather than doing it in a nearby storage unit, as the former husband-and-wife team did.
“We kept the Palmano’s name to show customers we’ll keep the same type of place — the coffee, the breakfast, the lunch, the sandwiches,” Catherine explains. So, why the “Chez?” “To show that something different has happened,” she adds.
Indeed it has. The soup — a glorious, healing “greens and beans,” served in a white ceramic bowl — is indicative of where Chez Palmano’s is headed. “I use fresh vegetables,” says Catherine, whose name is pronounced ka-TREEN. “I play with the food, using what’s in the fridge.”
Catherine dismisses canned ingredients as offensive and plans to focus on fresh food. However, she’ll have to keep the menu small until she can retrofit the kitchen, which needs an equipment overhaul.
The Delrieus moved here from Normandy, where they owned a series of restaurants. The last one was damaged by fire, and the insurance claim has yet to be settled. So they bought Palmano’s, packed their bags and moved to sunny Central Florida, where they’d enjoyed visiting over the years.
For now, Chez Palmano’s is a nice retreat for a light breakfast or lunch. I’d opt for soup whenever possible. After falling passionately for that beans-and-greens, I tried a French onion soup on a return visit. It had a rich broth, slivers of tender onion, a chunk of bread and a lid of gooey cheese—the perfect combo.
Catherine is trying to create sandwiches that she likes, but that Americans will like, too. She’s doing OK. The tuna sandwich has a Frenchified name—pain-bagna (usually spelled pain bagnat). It’s mushed-up tuna with mayonnaise, green bell pepper and celery on a pressed whole wheat bun.
I’d prefer a more European version, maybe chunks of tuna in olive oil, but I did enjoy the slices of hard-boiled egg and the calamata olives sharing space between the bread slices. Hopefully next time Catherine will remember to pit all the olives; luckily I didn’t crack a molar.
The Winter Park Sandwich is a panini on a pressed white roll filled with turkey, prosciutto, mozzarella and pesto mayonnaise, plus the requisite lettuce and tomato with red onion. It’s a nice lunch option.
Hot specials are often available. During my second visit, during a chilly winter day, beef Burgundy was available. The tender, flavorful stew, with generous chunks of potatoes and carrots, was delivered to the table in a mini Staub Dutch oven. The dish won my heart. I reheated portions for lunch the three following days.
Eyeing quiche on a neighboring table — that’ll be my next order, for sure — we concluded our meal with a slice of cloufitis. The slightly sweet fruit-and-custard dessert had a disarmingly bright flavor, stunning almost. Yet, the consistency was pasty.
I sipped a latte with my cloufitis. I’m one of the rare ones who never swooned over the original Palmano’s coffee. This one didn’t seem particularly special either. I assume many readers will disagree.
Like Palmano’s original owners did from time to time, the Delrieus are tinkering with dinner service. For now, they offer evening meals on Friday nights.
“We serve French food with French ingredients,” Catherine says. For example, she might offer a cassoulet with fish and seafood. Another week she’ll prepare veal topped with prosciutto and sage, beef Bourguignon or Parisian shrimp.
In all, four entrées are available each week. Since the menu is still in the formative stage, the specials tend to change frequently.
Meanwhile, the couple has a lengthy to-do list, whatever their restaurant will ultimately be called. No. 2, after revamping that kitchen, is buying new patio furniture. “It needs to be remodeled with nice tables and comfortable chairs,” Catherine says, lamenting the worn versions outdoors today.
Another pressing task is learning how to manage American employees. “I was not familiar with the American way,” Catherine says. “The way we serve, the way we cook, everything is different.” In Pierre’s case, learning English is a priority.
I’ll add one to the list. The Delrieus need to figure out how to keep out the cigar smell that wafts over from the shop next door. In nice weather, the best time to linger at a café with sidewalk and courtyard seating, all the doors are open.
Unfortunately, so are the doors of the adjacent cigar lounge. There’s no avoiding the scent. I don’t mind that terribly, but my dining companion found it unbearable.
Still, these enthusiastic newcomers seem to be avoir l’esprit rapide, on the ball, and they’ll surely figure out a solution. They’re determined to live their dream on Park Avenue, whatever the obstacles.
“We came here because we love America,” Catherine says. “Here, you can be what you want to be.”