Twenty minutes past our 7:30 reservation at Louisa’s Café in Cape May—for which our party of three had shown up a few minutes early—I was sitting on the painted wooden bench outside, intermittently peering through the windows to see if a table was about to be vacated. Shortly before 8 pm, we were finally seated.
At that point, I was hungry, cranky and curious how the restaurant would handle the late seating.
“Can I start you with an appetizer?” asked our server. “We’ll be taking care of those tonight. We’re so sorry for the wait.”
That was the right thing to do. It’s a leading example of Louisa’s sincere hospitality—something often in short supply in season down the Shore. Founded in 1980, Louisa’s has an avid following, but only 34 seats (up from an original 20). Running such a place isn’t easy, especially in summer. Some customers show up late or drag out their stay. Longtime servers Sarah and Molly Bernstein—twins hard to tell apart in their matching Breton-striped sailor shirts—spread good feeling. One of them, not sure which, offered us the free apps.
We chose a Caesar salad, fresh and crisp, a good kick to the dressing; sunset-hued tomato-crab bisque; and a romaine salad rich with chunks of Gorgonzola.
Louisa’s has its quirks. It’s a seafood restaurant with vegetarian options, but no meat. There are no printed menus—regular items and specials are written on a large chalkboard. And it’s cash only. (There’s a cash machine across the street at Collier’s liquor store.)
No matter. The food is as good as the service. On our first visit, we enjoyed crisp, pan-seared flounder with a tangy dill sauce and pan-seared local scallops with tamari and ginger. Entrées are straightforward: fish or shellfish with a sauce (smoky red-pepper rouille with a generous swordfish steak, for example), invariably served with sides of toothsome, short-grain brown rice and cabbage salad perky with lime juice and cilantro.
“We love the way they pair with fresh fish,” says Will Riccio who, with his sister, Honna Riccio, bought the café from founders Louisa Hull and Doug Dietsch in 2014. “Also, the sauces are on the side, so you can control the flavor.”
Don’t people tire of the same two sides? “We experimented with other things,” Will says, “but people were like, ‘Give me my cabbage and rice.’ Still, they can upgrade to a different side if they want.”
Over many visits, I’ve compiled my own list of dishes I never tire of eating: al dente, house-made fettuccine in tomato sauce checkered with hunks of salty feta; the crab-tomato bisque; monkfish braised with aromatic fennel and olives; pillowy crab cakes; flavorful Jersey bluefish whose oily fat is offset by lots of hot pepper.
Two recent misses, both specials: a Thai squid salad, very tender but lacking the acidity, herbaceousness and heat the dish requires; and a shrimp Creole lacking pep.
Will, 37, served as chef the first few years after buying the restaurant, where he had worked from ages 14 to 21. “It was my first job and where I learned to cook,” he says. Will went on to a career as a house restorer and interior decorator. “I used to joke with Louisa about calling me when she was ready to sell the business,” he says. “I never thought I would own a restaurant, but I didn’t want to ever see [Louisa’s] gone. It’s very special, and I feel blessed to keep it going.”
The Riccios ceded the kitchen in 2018 to chef Vince Dipietro, whose resume includes a stint at the Mad Batter down the street. Desserts, always a strength, continue to be under Honna, this year assisted by Molly Bernstein. Portions are big. Recent sensations included spiced apricot upside-down cake and panna cotta crowned with rhubarb compote. Whether you lean toward moist bread pudding studded with chunks of dark chocolate or buttermilk layer cake scented with rosemary, you can expect a happy ending, even if you have to wait to be seated.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Seafood
Price Details:Appetizers, $8-$9; entrées, $21-$28; desserts, $7
Ambience:Charming beach cottage
Service:Warm, knowledgeable, gracious