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Mezzo Italiano is Cambria's only late-night spot for comfort cravings 

You know the feeling. It's nearing 10:30 p.m. and you still haven't eaten dinner.

Maybe you were out watching a friend's play (because you are a really good person and a proud patron of the arts), or perhaps you've just emerged from the purgatory of a movie that ran way, way too long.

click to enlarge COME IN, THEY'RE OPEN Mezzo Italiano Organic Kitchen is open from 3 p.m. to midnight in Cambria, serving up seasonal dine-in or to-go pizzas, pasta dishes, salads, and soups. You can also stop in for a cup of Peet's coffee and a few chocolate truffles, depending on your mood. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MEZZO ITALIANO
  • Photo Courtesy Of Mezzo Italiano
  • COME IN, THEY'RE OPEN Mezzo Italiano Organic Kitchen is open from 3 p.m. to midnight in Cambria, serving up seasonal dine-in or to-go pizzas, pasta dishes, salads, and soups. You can also stop in for a cup of Peet's coffee and a few chocolate truffles, depending on your mood.

In either case, what the gas station's offering just isn't going to cut it. You're crabby, cranky, and just craving some hot and comforting carbs before you hit the hay.

In any major city, this isn't really an issue. All one has to do is scan the horizon for a neon "open" sign.

In small town Cambria, late night dining isn't just difficult. It presents a major dilemma.

Well, that's what chef Victoria Moreno banked on. Turns out, she was right.

Cambria needed a spot where Highway 1 travelers, locals, and artists could mingle over a bowl of hot roasted chicken soup or order a quick, grab-and-go pasta to take home to the family.

Even the old timers are now flocking to her new restaurant, Mezzo Italiano Organic Kitchen, which opened in June. With its boomerang-shaped bar, the late night bistro—open 3 p.m. to midnight at 1622 Main St.—represents a bright spot in Cambria's famously star-studded sky.

At first, Moreno said plenty of longtime Cambria residents were skeptical.

"One woman said she couldn't see any reason why she'd ever come in after 8:30 p.m., but—just a few days later—there she was, after seeing a friend's play. We laughed about it," Moreno said.

click to enlarge IT TAKES THREE Executive Chef Victoria Moreno and business partners Linda and Marianne Barry can be found at their new restaurant, Mezzo Italiano Organic Kitchen in Cambria, most nights of the week. Stop in for hot coffee and dessert, handmade pasta, or a fresh seasonal special from 3 p.m. to midnight daily. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MEZZO ITALIANO
  • Photo Courtesy Of Mezzo Italiano
  • IT TAKES THREE Executive Chef Victoria Moreno and business partners Linda and Marianne Barry can be found at their new restaurant, Mezzo Italiano Organic Kitchen in Cambria, most nights of the week. Stop in for hot coffee and dessert, handmade pasta, or a fresh seasonal special from 3 p.m. to midnight daily.

Yes, as it turns out, Cambria isn't just about grabbing a slice of pie at Linn's. People live here. They travel here. They have families to feed and meetings that run long. There's more meat to this place, and Moreno is hoping to serve it up hot seven nights a week.

"Mezzo Italiano means 'half Italian,' which I am," Moreno said. "The idea was purely selfish. I wanted to be able to cook my food all the time. I love really seasonal, quality ingredients. My cooking is always simple, with the ingredients playing the starring role."

The Bay Area native has lived in Cambria since 1994 and previously owned Victoria's Last Resort, a Cambria bed and breakfast, for about 10 years.

Before that, she cut her teeth at Square One in the Bay Area, known for its from-scratch ethos way before "farm to table" became every chef's rallying cry.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF MEZZO ITALIANO
  • Photo Courtesy Of Mezzo Italiano

It was the mid '80s and Moreno worked hard to hone her skills as a pastry chef. Although never classically trained, she said she learned a lot from her hands-on experience in the restaurant world.

"After moving on to different restaurants, I quickly learned that not everyone has that work ethic or from-scratch philosophy," she said. "I knew what I liked, and what I would want, in my own restaurant."

Now, the chef is able to shop the Cambria farmers' market weekly, where the restaurant is also a vendor. On any given night, she might be making handmade pasta, polenta, mashed potatoes, meatballs, or "green balls," (made with roasted broccoli and cauliflower, Swiss chard, spinach, caramelized onion, mushrooms, egg, and good Parmesan).

However, this dream was not built by one woman's tastes alone. In fact, it took three bold broads to take the idea into reality.

A year ago, Moreno's friend from the Bay Area, Linda Barry, came out to visit.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF MEZZO ITALIANO
  • Photo Courtesy Of Mezzo Italiano

Moreno said all she had to do was casually bring up the possibility of moving to Cambria, and her friend was immediately on board (the perfect weather and old-school charm make it a pretty easy sell). Barry's sister, Marianne, soon joined the team.

Together, all three women run the restaurant, wearing about a hundred different hats between them.

"Things started going fast from there," Moreno said. "Us three do the majority of everything. We don't have to worry about the restaurant on one of our days off, because one of us is always there."

That said, Moreno is the true brainchild and executive chef, and her dishes are crafted from the heart. Her quasi-Iatlian menu changes with the seasons and with her whims, although some staples (the pizzas and soups) are always on.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF MEZZO ITALIANO
  • Photo Courtesy Of Mezzo Italiano

Although there has been a bit of drama regarding the restaurant's Caesar salad (some want it with more fishy anchovy taste and others love the subtle, lemony flavor), everyone can agree on the Rolioli (the chef's own invention: lasagna meets ravioli with a cheesy filling and baked with a choice of marinara, puttanesca, or mushroom ragout).

Same goes for the desserts, especially after a long late-night drive up Highway 1, when a sugar fix is in order. Fresh baked cakes, cupcakes, apple pie, chocolate truffles, and cookies are always a welcome companion to a well-brewed batch of Peet's Coffee.

"We have a lot of regulars who come in to pick up pizzas to heat up at home, but we also have late arrivals into town who generally would not have many choices in Cambria after 8:30 p.m. besides the gas station," Moreno said. "Really, it's everyone down here; all kinds of people. Everyone ends up at Mezzo Italiano eventually." Δ

Hayley Thomas Cain can't think of anything more cozy than roasted chicken soup on a cold Cambria night. She can be reached at hthomas@newtimesslo.com.

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