It was one of those brilliant late-summer evenings, the type that is too scarce to squander indoors. The temperature was taking its good, sweet time on the way down, the air was crisp and clean, and the sky was the color of a Bob Ross painting — Prussian blue, I believe it's called. We grabbed a light sweater and drove straight to Felice, a place that is always on our radar but often sidestepped in favor of newer spots.
Walking up to the building, that immaculate Craftsman-style bungalow, we began noticing some changes to the property. What had always been a charming if rustic patio had blossomed into an impeccably tailored landscape, one that now includes a bocce court, fire pit and fruit trees with limbs bending towards earth under the weight of their bounty. And then there was that carriage house, the stylish alfresco bar that functions as the heart of it all.
I guess you could say that Felice has advanced into its third act, an era defined by a state of refinement and maturity in terms of food, service and setting. The "urban cafe" opened its doors in 2008 under the direction of Margaret Mueller, a then-79-year-old benefactor who "did it for the fun of it." She had solid help in the form of chef-partner Ricardo Sandoval, who split his time between Felice, Fat Cats and Lava Lounge. Sandoval parted ways with Mueller after six years, ushering in a second act best described as uneventful stasis. All that ended a couple years ago when Jack Mueller, Margaret's grandson, and Paul Neundorfer stepped in to save the day, alongside longtime chef Jose Coronado.
Another addition to the rambling patio is a wood-fired pizza oven, clad in handsome fieldstone and emanating warmth and fuel. The warmth comes by way of radiant heat, the fuel in the form of thin-crusted pizzas that crackle, shatter and bend in all the right places. Ours was topped with zesty soppressata ($13), mozzarella and greens.
You would be hard pressed to find a collection of food as broad, eclectic and tantalizing as what's proffered here. There are 30-some options on the main menu, a mix of classic and new, vegan and meaty, small, medium and large. A specials menu adds another 10 or so and, when weather permits, there is another devoted to those fire-baked pies. It's the sort of catalog that renders diners immobile with indecision: Should I go with the grilled octopus or the garlic shrimp, the duck confit or the braised pork belly?
A Buffalo-style, tempura-fried cauliflower ($8) appetizer, which happens to be vegan, manages to summon the flavors, if not the textures, of those timeless barroom flappers. The cauliflower is crisp-tender, and it's tossed in a robust sauce. Slightly larger than Totino's Pizza Rolls, three wee chorizo-filled empanadas ($9) pack heaps of flavor in a tiny package.
Rare is the restaurant chicken dish that manages to make a lasting impression, but that's precisely what the Guatemalan roast chicken ($20) succeeded in doing. From the crispy skin to the juicy bone-in dark meat, the bird was flawless. Rounding out the Latin-themed platter were housemade tortillas, fluffy rice, black beans and pickled peppers. A Spanish-style seafood stew ($23) featured an aromatic saffron-scented broth containing shrimp, clams, mussels and flaky fish. The deep bowl was capped with an aioli slicked crostini. Not to be outdone by others, Felice prepares a lusty fried chicken sandwich ($13) with cabbage slaw, pickles and pepper sauce on a downy soft bun.
An appealing brunch menu lures bed-headed foodies out of the house come Saturday and Sunday, when the pace is slower but the service is still polished. Mugs of Rising Star coffee ($3) are kept full and hot. Composed breakfast plates like chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits and huevos rancheros are filling, flavorful and texturally satisfying. Those rancheros ($14) arrive on a plate loaded with fried eggs, fresh tortillas, black beans, salsa, guacamole and crispy plantain wedges. Crisp-skinned salmon is the star of a meatless eggs Benedict ($15). The chubby stack is doused in Hollandaise and sided by seasoned fried potatoes. Oddly, the base of it all is a squishy hamburger bun top rather than a sturdy muffin, one of the few missteps over the course of two recent visits.
Felice doesn't lose its appeal during the cooler parts of the year; it just changes its tack — and its menu, as seasonal dishes are swapped in and out, including some of the ones mentioned above. The vintage but updated house offers numerous habitats throughout, from the main floor with its four-season patio to the second-floor barroom and on up to the hip attic lounge. The dead of winter is bearable when you're gripping a local craft beer, a glass of Spanish red or a heady cocktail fortified with rye in the warm embrace of the upper floors.