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Cheap eats

At City Girl Cafe, surprises abound

(Zara Tzanev for The Boston Globe)
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / November 18, 2009

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City Girl Cafe, a veteran among Inman Square restaurants, opened 13 years ago as an informal place where customers ordered panini and salads and breakfast at the counter. Now City Girl has grown up. This fall, the tiny spot down the street from Ryles began offering table service for dinner and brunch.

The more formal atmosphere - if a restaurant bathed in eggplant-purple walls covered with kitschy pictures of girls and young women could be considered formal - has transformed City Girl into a cozy restaurant, a romantic nook in the busy square on a blustery night. New owners, who took over last year, have kept many of the same recipes but added a few more tables. The dining room is still Lilliputian, with just nine two-person tables that can be rearranged for larger groups.

The menu is studded with small, happy surprises. Rosemary lemonade ($2) is excellent. We love the bruschetta, both the standard bruschetta on the menu ($6; pictured below), with an astonishingly good artichoke pate, and, on another evening, a special bruschetta slathered with black olive tapenade.

Pizza here is inventive and the toppings fresh, but the crust is disappointingly soft. Still, the caprini ($14.50), with caramelized onions, goat cheese, spinach, and mozzarella, is a delicious mix. Fettuccine with prosciutto and peas ($12) is another favorite, and the lemon cream sauce finds the right balance of richness. Although we like the pastas because they’re not overwhelmed by sauces, the penne with pesto ($9) is a bit scant on the green stuff. At brunch, all the meals come with skillfully seasoned herb-roasted potatoes.

A restaurant this small has a few quirks. The bathroom doesn’t have room for a sink, so instead, a dispenser of hand-sanitizer hangs from the wall. Sometimes ingredients or menu items aren’t available: On one visit, the espresso brownie parfait is gone. On another, there are no figs. Since meals are cooked to order, a problem can mean a long delay. After we order caprini pizza, our waitress delivers bad news: As our pizza was getting sliced, most of it slipped onto the floor. She brings us the two surviving slices and another whole pizza is prepared and boxed up since it isn’t done by the time everyone else in our group has finished.

The waitress tells us about pumpkin bread with vanilla bean ice cream panini ($4) but we cannot order the ice cream alone for a child at our table. The sandwich arrives and we realize why. Desserts are made in advance, the ice cream sandwiched between two slices of dense grilled bread. Too bad, because the panini is good, and might have been wonderful if the bread weren’t half frozen.

CITY GIRL CAFE 204 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-864-2809, citygirlcafe.com. All major credit cards accepted.

Not wheelchair accessible.

Prices Pasta $7-$12, pizza $9.50-$14.50, brunch $6-$9.

Hours Tue-Fri 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

Liquor Beer and wine.

May we suggest Bruschetta, fettuccine with prosciutto and peas, caprini pizza, herb-roasted potatoes.

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