Thinking back to my sophomore year at the University of Scranton, I can't imagine anything other than parties and sleeping until 2 p.m. as my two top priorities. I think the same can be said for a lot of college sophomores. Unless you're Alessandra Siniscalco, who as an 18-year-old sophomore at Suffolk University, started Café Piazza Dolce in Winchester in 2005.
"It was just a café," said Siniscalco, who first opened the store in the basement of her father's Main Street building and next to his salon. "We did coffee and pastries and I was only open when salon hours were open. Little by little people started coming. We kept on growing. We were always having to go to town hall for permits for something, to knock down a wall or make this bigger."
Since then, Café Piazza Dolce has expanded to the first floor and out the rear of the building where customers can savor the Southern Italian cuisine under the wooden gazebo hand-built by Siniscalco's father and brother.
Since its start, Café Piazza Dolce has been one big family affair, from the building itself (Siniscalco's father and uncles built the entire building from the ground up before her dad and brother renovated the first floor.) to the dishes she's created over the years.
"When I was little I was always with my grandparents," said Siniscalco "I felt like a sponge. I wanted to remember every little thing of her and anything she wanted to teach me. Any time she made anything I was right next to her."
Siniscalco's bella shoe' shoe' sauce (pronounced shwe shwe) is right out of her grandmother's kitchen. It's a vine ripe tomato sauce that cooks all day with onions, basil white wine and serves as the basis for almost all of her other sauces, from her pink Alfredo to the spicy fra diavolo.
"I could eat that as a soup it's so delicious," said Siniscalco
Family is such an important part of Café Piazza Dolce, that you can find several dishes named after various Siniscalco relatives.
To start, there's Eggplant Enzo (named after her father), which breaded eggplant cutlets stuffed with fresh prosciutto di Pamrma, spinach and melted cheese. Then there's the Alba Panino named after her mom. This pressed panini comes fully packed with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto di Parma, tomatoes and basil.
But if there's one dish that Siniscalco would recommend to any first-time visitor, she says it would have to be the Gnocci Del Ter: cavatelli pasta in a wild mushroom cream sauce topped with seared scallops.
"I love that because I love oyster mushrooms," said Siniscalco. "I remember growing up and my grandparents taking us to the woods and picking mushrooms. It was my version of taking something from them and making it my own."
Most of the dishes served at Café Piazza Dolce are derived from Avellino, where Siniscalco's mother was born and raised. After spending a summer there when she was 12-years-old, Siniscalco learned to appreciate the importance of fresh food.
"The cuisine is really nice," said Siniscalco. "It's anything that you have. It all depends on what's growing, what do you have in the garden, whatever's fresh."
Looking back, Siniscalco says starting her restaurant didn't come easy. As a full-time student at Suffolk, Siniscalco spent countless hours, cooking in the back kitchen, and then sneaking in some study time once customers began leaving. She even resorted to sleeping on one of her father's massage tables when it got to be too late.
"It was tough," said Siniscalco. "There were times where I'd make all the orders for a pizza party and then I'd sit in the back and study and read and do my homework. It was tough, now, looking back on it, but then, that's just the way it was. You can't feel sorry for yourself, you just do it."
Now that she's out of school and has a business degree, Siniscalco can focus solely on Café Piazza Dolce, and hopes to expand even more to the third level. But things will get a little more hectic this fall, when Siniscalco begins teaching a 'Women in Business' class at Suffolk.
In the meantime however, you can find Siniscalco in the kitchen preparing endless batches of her bella shoe' shoe' sauce, or serving as hostess at the front door, or maybe on her computer designing and printing the menus. But whatever it is she's doing, you can be sure to find her at Café Piazza Dolce.