Sabrina's Cafe

The pumpkin-pear pancakes are fluffy and perfectly seasoned and topped with a blueberry compote the texture of apple butter. (Jonathan Wilson/Inquirer)

The giant whisks that once whipped up wedding cakes and Sicilian butter cookies at Litto's Bakery in the Italian Market now hang from the ceiling of Bella Vista's hottest brunch spot.

Fitted with light bulbs and strung into a funky chandelier, they beam into one of the many cozy dining rooms at Sabrina's Cafe - an homage to the historic bakery that occupied this space for more than 60 years.

But they're also a nod to the bohemian spirit of the space's current incarnation. Sabrina's displays its servers' artwork, from jewelry to postcards, under glass in the front room. And the kitchen turns pancakes and French toast into its own creative canvas.

Of course, a lot can go wrong with a dish like pumpkin-pear pancakes with blueberry compote or caramelized challah French toast stuffed so thick with farmer cheese and bananas that it could be mistaken for a public-works project. But Sabrina's day chef, Lance Silverman, usually gets it right.

Night chef Ted Nephew also does a fine job of serving comfort food with an eclectic twist, and at fair prices that make for great neighborhood dining.

But there's something about brunch in Bella Vista's quirky cafes (think Morning Glory Diner and Carman's Country Kitchen) that has folks lining up for hours on weekends. And Sabrina's fits that mold, with a whimsical ambience that feels as if the place belongs on a college campus. There are also some unique signature items that will keep me coming back.

Those pancakes, for one, were superb. Blended with pureed pumpkin, they could have been gummy and overspiced. Instead, they were fluffy and perfectly seasoned, inset with slices of snappy pear and smeared with a blueberry compote that had the texture of apple butter.

The French toast brought four tall inches of puffy caramelized bread striped with vanilla maple syrup. Its stuffing of cool cheese and fruit contrasted nicely with the warm bread.

Some breakfast items could be improved. The egg-white omelette with goat cheese and Canadian bacon was flavorful, but nearly falling apart. The steak and eggs with "spicy" hollandaise was a nice idea, but the hollandaise was lumpy and bland.

Owner Robert De Abreu, who named the cafe after his baby daughter, has allowed the restaurant to evolve organically from the short-lived Molly's Cafe, which he took over in 2001 after working as a manager for Outback Steakhouse.

One holdover from the Molly's era is the vegetarian cheesesteak, a saute of seitan, cheese and roasted hot peppers in a Sarcone's roll. It's about as good as a veggie steak can be, even if it is a little squishy.

Not all of the vegetarian dishes appealed to me. The two daily soups I tried, for example, were thick purees rather than broths. But I'll agree that the "ultimate" Caesar salad is a vegetarian bonanza, a gargantuan pile of refreshing romaine ribboned with shredded radicchio, meaty portobello strips, and rings of grilled eggplant that lends a surprising smokiness to the salad.

I am also addicted to the polenta-cheese fries, thick rails of deep-fried corn pudding flecked with spicy chiles. The only drawback is the superfluous marinara dip, which had a metallic flavor.

Some of Sabrina's best dishes, though, are neither breakfasty nor vegetarian. The antipasto is a massive platter of balsamic-streaked prosciutto, roasted vegetables, cheese and olives.

The awesome Mel's chicken cutlet sandwich is one of the few other items that place this cafe in its Italian Market context. It's a memorably moist piece of meat encrusted with polenta and bread crumbs and snuggled into a crusty roll with molten provolone, spinach, and the local spice, roasted long hot peppers.

The buttermilk-soaked calamari are also among the most tender and addictive I've tasted.

Much of the rest of Sabrina's hodgepodge menu, though, recalls the updated comfort food of Judy's Cafe rather than any of its Italian neighbors.

The ever-changing chalkboard of dinner specials brings hearty meat loaf stuffed with something different every week. On our visit, it was filled with spinach and feta cheese and blanketed with a rich mushroom sauce. The addition of Thai chili sauce to the mix gave the meat - soft but not mushy - a subtle sweetness tinged with heat.

A big bowl of pasta with lemon cream was lighter than it sounded, tossed with mushrooms, prosciutto, peas and optional plump shrimp. The prosciutto would have been better cut into smaller pieces, but it added a welcome stroke of saltiness nonetheless.

Coconut fried shrimp is a dish many restaurants botch. But Sabrina's does it well, cloaking the giant shrimp in a crust that isn't too sweet and serving them over a cool soba noodle salad dusted with chunky mango salsa like tropical confetti.

This kitchen has a nice touch with seafood in general, turning out entrees that show simple but interesting tweaks to good ingredients and, for no more than $16 a plate, are also a good value. A thick fillet of baked salmon dolloped with herbed mascarpone cheese is one example. Another was a perfectly rare seared sesame-crusted tuna steak paired with sweet-and-sour butter that was infused with orange and fennel.

I came up a little short on dessert during each of my three meals. By the time I ordered, there was never more than one selection.

What was left wasn't bad, though the layered strawberry shortcake from Old City's Petit 4 could have used more whipped cream and a little more fresh fruit and fluff.

"The dessert guy didn't show up today," our friendly server apologized during my final visit.

But the rustic apple pie I ordered that night (also from Petit 4) was more like it, a cinnamon-dusted specimen of country goodness filled with luscious fruit.

I couldn't help thinking that, in its dearth of desserts, Sabrina's had yet to take that last step in its lovely evolution. Any place that lights its rooms with a chandelier made from old bakery whisks need only embrace a bit of that history to see where its future lies.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or