Pesce Out of Water: Rustic Italian Food in Spring Lake

He’s effusive, joyously Italian and talks with his hands. Cosimo Maolini stands out in preppy Spring Lake, yet somehow fits in.

Cosimo Maolini at Cafe Artiste
Cosimo Maolini has been pleasing customers in Spring Lake since 1998. At Café Artiste, the draw is his rustic, traditional Italian food and his warm welcome. He is owner, chef, greeter, waiter and busboy rolled into one.
Photo by Dustin Fenstermacher.

Lunchtime. You walk into Café Artiste. Cosimo Maolini—chef, server, host, floor show—presides at the counter. There’s no real menu. His wife jokes that Maolini should wear an apron that says, “I’m the menu.” You cast your eye over whatever Cosimo (from Puglia by way of Tuscany) has decided to make that day as he explains in his rapid-fire jumble of English and Italian how delizioso everything is.

“See the quiche I make today,” he tells a patron. “Spinach with mascarpone cheese. A little cheddar also. Very light. No salty. When you try, you tell me.”

Or he’ll tout his salads. “This called panzanella Toscana. We toast the bread, put fresh tomato, onion, celery, everything. We mix the greens, olive oil and balsamic, that’s it. Beans, four kinds. With a piece Tuscan chicken on top.”

Cosimo improvises. Today’s offerings differ from yesterday’s, and whatever he’s serving at 11 o’clock—eggplant rollatini, perhaps, or pasta with porcini mushrooms—will be replaced by a whole new array of choices by 1 o’clock, because he works in small batches and cooks all day.

“Is coming now pork chops,” he announces, beaming.

“People don’t know what they’re going to eat when they come in the door,” explains his son Max, himself a chef. “They just know he’s going to hook them up and they’re going to leave happy.”

Cosimo improvises a bit with prices, too. You decide what you’d like and take a seat anywhere; he brings your food, lyrically expounding on how much you’ll enjoy it. Afterwards, at the cash register, you remind him what you ate. He consults some mental price list, makes a few circles with his hands and comes up with a round number, cash only. “Ahhhhh, you give me fourteen dollars.” The very same meal the day before might have cost $12 or $16, but the regulars think it’s a bargain either way.

In fact, you can probably get away—for a while—without paying at all. One June day, after my friend and I sat at a table outside (another story, about which more later) eating Tuscan chicken, we got too relaxed and forgot to go back indoors and pay for lunch. Two hours later, on the beach, my friend suddenly remembered. We called Cosimo on her iPhone, stricken and full of apologies. “Is no problem,” he told her. “Next time you in town, you pay me.” Of course, we went back and settled up.

A place like Cosimo’s might seem anomalous anywhere. He takes a late afternoon break, then comes back four nights a week in summer to serve a bargain fixed-price dinner, after which patrons have been known to push the chairs aside and dance. It’s so personal, so idiosyncratic, with paintings on every inch of the walls, a couple of ornate crystal lamps he bought at an antiques store going out of business in Asbury Park, and Italian pop music or Latin salsa wafting from an elaborate boom box atop the Coca-Cola cooler. “My dad is on the edge of eccentric,” says Max, to which I might reply, “On the edge?”

But what really makes this a pesce out of acqua story is that Cosimo’s Café Artiste is in Spring Lake.

It’s a charming town full of tall sycamores and rambling old houses (though rich newcomers have torn down and replaced a few too many with vast manors). The boardwalk offers nothing but strolling and ocean views. It’s also, in some ways, the Land That Time Forgot.

In Spring Lake’s three-block downtown, newer boutiques alternate with old-fashioned shops selling things rarely seen outside The Official Preppy Handbook, like a pocket flask encased in needlepointed lobsters. “It’s like you’re shopping in a Norman Rockwell painting,” says George D’Amico, president of the local Chamber of Commerce.

Even in summer, the stores close by 5 or 6 o’clock. “No one’s open at night in Spring Lake because no one shops, and no one shops at night in Spring Lake because no one’s open,” says Matt Magyar, proprietor of the Third Avenue Chocolate Shoppe. A rare exception, it sells candy and ice cream cones until 9.

Sixteen-year-olds complain to him that there’s nothing to do in town, and Magyar responds, “That’s why your parents like it here.”

Nor is Spring Lake a citadel of diversity. You see lots of Irish flags flying in summer—it’s heavily Irish Catholic—but no rainbow ones. In several years of day trips, I’d never glimpsed a black person in this town of nearly 3,000 residents and concluded there were none. That proved untrue: According to the 2010 Census, there are eight.

Even though Cosimo Maolini rhapsodizes about how beautiful Spring Lake is (he rhapsodizes about everything, really), for years he and his family have lived a few miles north in less wealthy, more diverse Belmar. “I like that my little one goes to school with all types of people,” his wife, Tara Campbell, says pointedly.

So why, of all the Shore towns in all the world, did Cosimo walk into this one? He’s 54, short and barrel-chested, and works in jeans and patterned shirts. If you tied his hands together, he probably couldn’t speak. On Saturday nights after dinner, when most local storefronts are dark, you can hear his favorite merengue resound all the way down the block. He and his fellow businesspeople seem cut from different molds.
It turns out that he came to Spring Lake for love.

Cosimo’s family owned a casual seaside restaurant—the kind of place where the menu is scrawled on a blackboard—in the little town of Rodi Garganico, in Puglia, in Southern Italy. Though he learned to cook from his mother, Cosimo had other ambitions and went to art school. (The paintings that cover most of Café Artiste’s walls include his own landscapes.) Soon, though, he joined the economic exodus. In Southern Italy, “either you work in your family restaurant or you go up north,” Max Maolini explains.

Moving to more prosperous Siena, Cosimo worked as a waiter—an esteemed position in Italy, he points out—in a restaurant on the famed Piazza del Campo. Tara Campbell, a Marymount College senior studying abroad, had an American friend who was dating one of Cosimo’s colleagues. They all went out one night in 1988, and that’s amore.

For six years after their wedding, the couple remained in Siena (Max was born there), but it proved a tough place to live. Americans couldn’t easily find jobs; Cosimo was working crazy restaurant hours; both their families were far away. So in 1995 they emigrated to Campbell’s hometown, Spring Lake, where they had three more children.

Three years later, Cosimo opened an eatery there simply because he was pining for a decent espresso. “I like my coffee and is no coffee in Spring Lake,” he explains. He found a local business partner, Dan Waters, and began selling coffee, panini and gelato from a rented storefront on Third Avenue with 18 seats. Waters still opens Café Artiste each morning and handles all the paperwork.

Soon came Cosimo’s first tussle with the authorities. He placed a small bench on the sidewalk so he could savor his espresso in the sun.

“The guys come, said ‘Take it away,’” Cosimo recalls, meaning the borough’s code-enforcement officials. Local ordinances, he was surprised to learn, didn’t permit sidewalk furniture. “You only do business inside in Spring Lake. No signs outside. No tables.”

Spring Lake has had an ambivalent relationship with commerce. In fact, says Bill Skuby, owner of a local menswear shop, “enclaves like this don’t want everyone traipsing through. They don’t want a lot of outsiders.” (Skuby made news last fall for a truly offensive window display depicting Barack Obama as a tribal chieftain in a loincloth.)

Even after a car providentially plowed through part of Café Artiste’s building in 2005, causing Cosimo and Waters to move around the corner to a larger space on Morris Avenue, the tussles continued. At the new place, Cosimo had 30 seats instead of 18. He wanted to set up tables, umbrellas and planters on the broad sidewalk, so he could serve an additional 30 people during the crucial summer season.

The borough balked. “They wanted uniformity,” Magyar says. “If one person puts out a bench, the next person puts out a clothes rack. Then someone puts out a display.”

This made exactly no sense to an Italian. “How beautiful to sit outside,” Cosimo says. “More like Europe.” But here, “not one chair. The guy come and check, every day.” He seriously contemplated moving to another town.

Maybe the way to a town’s heart really is through its stomach. In 2007, after outside consultants recommended changes and the Chamber of Commerce endorsed them, the borough adopted an ordinance to allow outdoor dining, resolving the sidewalk spat without much protest or foot stomping. Now several other downtown eateries have added a few sidewalk tables and chairs (but they have to be black or forest green, with no logos on the umbrellas).

“It seems sort of silly, and it’s certainly not the mindset now,” Chamber president D’Amico says of the old prohibitions. He credits Cosimo and Waters with helping to push for change. “People here know and respect them and their place in the town.”

It’s true: Cosimo seems to bridge major cultural and ethnic differences with his homemade zabaglione, his personal exuberance and his insistence that you accept a cookie or muffin when you leave, lest hunger strike on your way home.

“Are we as liberal as New York City? No,” admits Magyar. “But who doesn’t love Italian food?”

On my most recent visit, Cosimo was regaling four college-age kids who’d wandered in with stories of life in Italy, where people don’t work as hard as Americans, where work is followed by a leisurely stroll and nobody goes out to eat until 9.

“We have another mentality,” he tells them. “I don’t talk bad about this country. I love here. But I miss the passeggiata, the atmosphere.”

At least he can recreate a bit of that in the unlikely place he landed 18 years ago. In another moment, he’s offering the kids, and me, and anyone still eating lunch at 2, one of his favorite desserts.

“Try a piece peach pie,” he says. “This woman make for me. Fresh peach. Mascarpone. A little custard. You need eat something.”

Paula Span, a veteran reporter, writes the New York Times’ New Old Age blog and is the author of the book When the Time Comes, on caring for aging parents. She teaches journalism at Columbia University and lives in Montclair.

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