Roadfood (Tomaselli’s)

“…and I’ll have a bottle of the Zinfandel,” Brenda decides.

“We have Zinfandel?” Rachel, our waitress, says blankly. We give her The Look because it’s right there on the menu.

“I’m gonna have to talk to Marty,” she says, absolutely deadpan, “He just changed the wine list and added a zin without telling me? Are you gonna share?”

And I knew we’d found A Place. A Place (capital P) is where you get personality with your food and the employees treat customers like an extended part of their slightly dysfunctional family. Where the menu makes absolutely NO sense but you could care less because you are about to tuck into a very good meal.

Brenda and I’d finished BeCON (the glass conference) the night before. You’d think we’d have had our fill of artsy-fartsy-glasstech stuff but apparently our glassgenes weren’t satisfied. They screamed ROADTRIP!!! so we’d set out to visit casting master Hugh McKay in Port Orford. That’s about 30 minutes south of Coos Bay, i.e., a good six-hour drive from glassland.

Each way.

Three hours later it was 5:00pm, we hadn’t eaten since breakfast and there was barely a cow in sight, let alone a building. We’d vowed to stop at the very next food joint, no matter how awful, greasy and nasty it looked.

Instead, we landed at Tomaselli’s Pastry Mill and WiFi Cafe, in a little smidgen of a place called Elkton, on the road between glassland and Coos Bay.

Do NOT let Tomaselli’s barn-funky roadside cafe look put you off. Just head on inside where the bread is tender, crunch-crusted and full of good stuff, baked by someone who obviously knows what s/he’s doing. And where the food is more or less Italian and very good.

Half-empty pastry cases and very full wine racks greet us as we walk in, ducking a bit under the pink and brown touristy sweatshirts festooning the rafters.* The whole grocery-deli-souvenir shop thing is a little off-putting, but the rich scents coming from the kitchen–and the luscious display of esoteric baking supplies–push us into the dining room.

I order the pappardelle and Brenda gets the Finger-lickin’ BBQ Chicken pizza. The wine, Marietta Old Vine Red, is excellent, and around us the locals laugh with Rachel-the-wisecracking-waitress.

“I’ve got peanut butter and jelly, but it’s the fried bologna that really gets them in the door,” she jokes. They howl and order the Alfredo with prawns. I settle in to eavesdrop, because the tabletalk here is choice.

Reedsport’s chainsaw sculpting champion sits at the next table, talking debarking strategy and home-made linguini with cippolini onions. His pickup truck, filled with bears chainsawed from a log, waits outside.

A chesty woman in a low-cut t-shirt, amazing eagle tattoo covering her left breast, cossets a grumbling baby who apparently isn’t allowed a third piece of bread. He goes for second best, a few sips of mother’s milk, and grabs at the eagle tattoo.

“Mooooooooomm!” groans her teenage son, scandalized, “If you’re gonna let him do that, PLEASE go outside.”

Brenda and I realize we’re famished (the smells coming from the kitchen aren’t helping), and ask Rachel if we can have our bread early. “Nope,” she says with an absolutely straight face, “It’s against the law to serve bread before I get back the menus. I could get arrested.”

We give her The Look again, and she grins. “Awww, I’m just messin’ with ya!”

Rachel’s maybe 20, fresh-faced and sarcastic as all get-out. She may be the only under-25 in the country who doesn’t Facebook. Or use a computer. Or mobile phone. Or television. Or digital camera. Or even a sewing machine.

“My hobby is sewing prom dresses for underprivileged teens. By hand,” she says, and this time she isn’t kidding, “And my art is making greeting cards for people out of things I find.”

She describes them at length, and I ask to see a sample because it sounds like something I’d like to frame and hang. “Oh, I wouldn’t SELL them,” she says, shocked, “Not for money. They’re too important for money.”

Okay, then.

The pappardelle is tasty with big, tender chunks of chicken and artichokes; the roasted vegetables accompanying it are even tastier. Brenda’s pizza is fabulous, although she’d expected bell peppers, not jalapenos.

“It said GREEN peppers,” she grumbles. I helpfully point out that jalapenos are green and now The Look is turned on me.

Rachel admits that the menu description could be misleading on the matter of jalapenos; I try a piece of Brenda’s pizza and my mouth catches fire. But the flavor, and that crust–whoa! This may be one of the better pizzas I’ve ever eaten, so I doggedly chew past the burn. Rachel promises to rewrite the menu.

The guy at the corner table is up for Oregon Tree Farmer of the Year and rehearsing his acceptance speech; his family nods and suggests he boost the humble factor. They’re trying to remember the name of a fabulous restaurant they tried in Oakhurst, California, and unable to resist, I get up and approach their table.

“Do you mean Erna’s Elderberry House?” I ask, while they stare at me, astonished. “It’s one of the best restaurants on the west coast,” I say smugly, “and I’ve known the owner, Erna, for years.”

“Erna’s! That’s right!” cries the treeguy’s daughter, clapping her hands, “Thanks! Yeah, it was real tasty, but afterwards we had to stop off at McDonalds to get something to eat or we would have starved. You know Rodney; if he doesn’t get the whole moose he’s still hungry.”

My foodie ego takes a nosedive; I slink back to my seat.

The six oldsters in the far corner, by the pastry case, debate the merits of red sauce with a splash of vodka versus a really spicy puttanesca. The guys behind us wonder if Marty will ever get around to putting the cioppino back on the menu because making it at home is a pain in the patoot.

Hmmmm. For a tiny, hole-in-the-wall town, this place eats pretty well.

*Well, Brenda ducked. The Mutt half of the team (me) walked right underneath with six inches of clearance.

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