“How are you connected with Gateway?” Our party of two, reservations required, sits at a round table for eight, and the two men seated next to us have turned to see what we are doing. Their curiosity is not unwarranted. We are at Café Vincenzo, the restaurant component of the Gateway Community College Culinary Arts program, and we are the only people under the age of 30 eating in the restaurant, which seats 32.
We appear to have been seated at the Humanities table, for as the meal goes on, the chairs around us fill with English and film professors. Though it is not clear that the other patrons have any connection to Gateway, the questions and the absence of other students indicate that our presence is unusual.
The absence of Yale students at Café Vincenzo is not difficult to explain. Though Gateway will move downtown within the next few years, Gateway’s current campus, a little way past Ikea, is at least a 10-minute drive from Yale. The restaurant requires reservations and is open only for lunch on Tuesday and dinner on Thursday, and the prix fixe menu leaves little wiggle room for gastronomic oddities like vegetarianism. Students willing to brave the distance and accommodate the restaurant’s schedule, however, will find at the end of a painted-white-cinderblock, educational-bulletin-board-filled corridor possibly the biggest culinary bargain available in New Haven.
For $9, lunch includes soup, salad, an entrée, dessert and coffee. We began with a believable Tuscan white bean soup with escarole greens, followed by a mixed field green salad with basil vinaigrette, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and blackberries. The entree, a fish the menu listed as “baked scrod” and that harbored what appeared to be a fried crust, gained nothing from its name. Scrod must have been on the brink of extinction from over-farming in order to merit a name that would ensure that even the bravest seafarer think twice before eating it, but Gateway’s rendition of it was palatable. The scrod sat on a bed of white rice, crowned with an onion ring encircling three stalks of asparagus. A piece of parsley completed the tower, jutting at a right angle to the fish like a thin tree on a baked or fried desert island, surrounded by a sea of ginger-lemongrass buerre blanc. Dessert involved a wineglass of rice pudding, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. At Gourmet Heaven, a sandwich and a Diet Coke alone max out the $9 budget.
More than the incontestable prices, though, the warm reception makes Cafe Vincenzo worth the trek and the strangeness of eating in a classroom-turned-restaurant. The professors were all interested in hearing about life at Yale and were eager to introduce me to Andrew Randy, the head chef in the Culinary Arts program. The professors testified to Andrew’s glory as though I were a judge at a canonization hearing. “Andrew teaches cooking to the developmentally disabled!” “Andrew makes Christmas dinner for the homeless!” I would not have been surprised to hear that Andrew had fought global warming through cooking classes.
In addition to his community service work, Andrew has been running the restaurant at Gateway for the last eight years. For Tuesday lunches, Andrew creates a menu and students help cook and serve the food. For Thursday dinners, which cost just $18, students create the menus based on ethnic and regional cuisines.
Now, the restaurant caters mainly to the Gateway community, but Andrew looks forward to expanding when the College moves downtown. The restaurant, he says, will be five times its current size. The Culinary Arts program will also operate a bakery, and the restaurant kitchens will be walled with glass so that the public and diners alike can see inside — a little Gray-Kunz-at-Columbus-Circle closer to home.
The talks of moving Gateway Community College downtown often emphasized the possibility of a relationship between Yale and Gateway, but it was not clear how proximity alone would unite the two. If the restaurant were closer to Yale and large enough to accommodate both people from Gateway and the broader downtown community, it might offer a real space for Yale and Gateway students to come together. That’s a lot to get for $9.