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Erase the surrounding buildings, the traffic, the instant pizza places and soft-serve walk-up places, and you are left with a lone cafe full of hand made pastas, paninis, and salads. The Fresco Cafe is an quaint Italian gem in the midst of Bozeman’s hotel and highway-food district.
Stepping into the little cafe, I was greeted by the pleasant smells of classic Italian cooking. If my nose is any judge of quality, I was in the right place. The little room has a rustic feel – Bozeman’s own country haven; filled with a handful of tables, open and filled with natural light. Hand written chalk menus hang above the counter near the door and offer a plethora of options. The bounty is such that it can take some time to read through the extensive menu and start to narrow down your choices.
Pasta being some of my favorite food, I quickly gravitated towards the long list of traditional Italian pasta preparations. The Spaghetti Bolognese, Homemade Cannelloni and Ravioli, and Spaghetti with Neopolitan Meatballs all belie the fact that you are indeed standing in a snow covered Rocky Mountain ski town in the heart of the American West. My senses are convinced that I am somewhere in Tuscany. This being the case, I allow myself to select several dishes – a salad, a couple main courses, and a desert. Italians eat like champions, filling themselves to the brim and taking their sweet time about it. I order my food, choose a corner table by the window, and settle in for an afternoon of food, drink, and good conversation – Italian camaraderie at its best.
My Manhattan Salad came out first, a mix of greens, apples, toasted walnuts, gorgonzola, currents, homemade croutons, and a house vinaigrette. The ingredients were fresh, the croutons and the apples crisp, and the gorgonzola pleasantly pungent. My only complaint was that the strength of the vinegar was a bit overpowering for the lighter flavors of apple, walnut, and current. A lighter hand with the dressing would have made the masked flavors pop.
For my main dish I opted for the Wild Smoked Salmon Rigatoni. The cooks at Fresco certainly know how to cook their pasta, and this dish proved it. The homemade pasta dough was cooked to al dente perfection. Slightly chewy, authentic Italian pasta is a far cry from the Americanized version which is usually overcooked. The real stuff gives a bit of resistance to the teeth – a little bit of textural drama to the eating experience. Slightly thicker than dried, pre-made pasta, it’s consistency resembles more of a very thin dough. It is a more filling, more substantial base for a myriad of vegetables, meat, and seasonings. This textural miracle was tossed with caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, and bacon, covered in creamy basil pesto, and topped with a centerpiece of grilled wild Alaska salmon. The salmon was flavorful, if a bit dry, and the ingredients were fresh and well cooked.
Far from being restricted to pastas, the lunch menu offers a wide selection of paninis – grilled Italian sandwiches. Named after the burroughs and neighborhoods in New York City, the sandwiches are filled with Italian meats, cheeses, and vegetables, and are perfect to eat right there in the cafe, or take with you to the office or home. There are cold sandwiches as well, served on fococcia bread and ready to fill a hungry belly. I tried the “Five Burroughs”, made with prosciutto, salami, provolone, caramelized onion, tomatoes, mayonnaise, and a house vinaigrette. Warm, meaty, and cheesy, these are perfect comfort food lunches.
For desert I split a Tiramissou with my fellow diners and was awakened from my food coma by a rush of caffeine from the traditional desert of espresso soaked ladyfingers with custard.
It takes several visits to the cafe to begin to work your way through the menu. At some point make sure to try the savory bites on the antipasto menu. There are several types of baked bread with toppings, such as the “Lavash Liguarian Style” (Mediterranean flat bread topped with basil pesto, tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella) and “Croute aux Fromage” (sourdough bread infused with white wine and topped with provolone, gorgonzola and prosciutto). Neapolitan meatballs and blue mussels are tasty morsels with which to begin a meal as well.
If you are craving something gamey and substantial, try the lamb burger (1/3 pound, topped with sauteed mushrooms, provolone, prosciutto, and fresh herb aioli, on focaccia bread), or sauteed chicken breast one of two ways – served in gorgonzola cream sauce with sauteed mushrooms and oven roasted vegetables, or served in olive oil with oven roasted vegetables and marinara.
The food at Fresco is the real thing, and as I ate a plateful of Spaghetti Putanesca on a darkening winter afternoon, I remembered my own experience spending two months in Florence, Italy on a college study abroad program. On a student budget, I ate from my school cafeteria most days, filling in the cracks by splurging on treats from bakeries and cafes. The man that ran the kitchen was right out of a novel. Cranky, dour, and stone faced, he daily whipped up pasta dishes, vats of marinara, and huge pans of thick, square pizza. Behind the rough facade, though, there was a twinkle in his eye, and he became close to our garrulous and free group of American expats.
One day he taught a cooking lesson to the students, and told us the story of the dish I was thoroughly enjoying. The phrase “spaghetti alla puttanesca” literally translates to “whore’s style spaghetti”. According to our born and bred Italian cook, local legend has it that prostitutes that worked out of their homes did not have time between clients to cook anything complicated, so they threw garlic, chili peppers, olives, capers, tomatoes, salt and pepper, and occasionally green peppers or anchovies into olive oil, simmered the whole mess up for a few minutes, and ate it over spaghetti, before preparing for their next client.
This spicy legend gives extra punch to an already flavorful dish, and Fresco does it well. Their version has sauteed garlic, capers, artichokes, and kalamata olives, tossed with marinara, parmesan, and spaghetti.
Dining in is always pleasant at Fresco, but keep them in mind for parties, weddings, and private events. The cafe does full service catering, and if the service at these events is as down to earth and friendly as in the cafe itself, your party will benefit from both warm and personable service and delicious food.
The Fresco Cafe stays true to its roots, serving up generous portions of pasta, regional Italian delicacies, salads, homey roast chicken, hot and cold sandwiches, wine, and sweets with rural flare. If we sit in snowy Rocky Mountain splendor, Fresco gives no hint of the fact, showcasing a rustic Tuscan splendor of its own. A comfy atmosphere, coupled with friendly service and authentic Italian food makes Fresco Cafe a go-to place to grab a quick lunch or enjoy lingering dinner conversation with friends, family, or a date. Make sure to come hungry.
A Bozeman native, Chelsea Hunt has witnessed an explosion of good food in the valley in recent years. Reading about, writing about, and eating good food make her happy.
If you like to eat and would like to read more about Bozeman restaurants find more Bozeman dining reviews in our Dining section.