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    Walking into the Federal Hill Cafe in downtown New Albany (across from the Preston Arts Center) feels like walking into the warm confines of an Italian-American home. The first things you notice are the rich kitchen scents of onion and tomato, the bustle in the exposed kitchen, the high ceilings, the casual array of furniture, and the ramshackle loft that rises up at the rear of the narrow dining room. On a slow night, someone might even pick up a guitar perched in the corner and strum a few chords.

    Federal Hill Cafe, the latest cool restaurant in New Albany, excels at immigrant Italian cuisine. Above, stuffed pork chop with roasted potatoes and broccoli. Call ahead and they may whip up something by request. (photo by brian bohannon)
    And when it comes to dining, Federal Hill is also very much like visiting an Italian-American home. When you order, it’s pretty likely your server will tell you that all the sauces and dressings are prepared from scratch, using fresh basil, oregano and so forth. If things aren’t too busy in the kitchen, the chef-owner will drop by your table to explain his culinary philosophy (and tell you that he himself goes shopping almost daily and hand picks the tomatoes in your salad).

    To complete the homestyle experience, I suggest you sit toward the back of the room, in a table near the kitchen, as my wife Mary and I did one night. A few minutes after we ordered, we could smell the bracing aroma of freshly minced garlic in a saute pan as our appetizer, a couple of plump cheese-filled ravioli, was cooked up in an aromatic mix of fresh herbs, onions and garlic.

    Over the last few weeks, since my fri/files/storyimages/Dick alerted me to this little gem of a restaurant, I’ve eaten dinners, lunches and carry-out from Federal Hill no less than four times, and had nothing but fine experiences.

    There’s nothing especially innovative in the Federal Hill approach. This is Italian immigrant cooking in the traditional mode (one night, the chef-owner told us he got nearly all of his recipes from his grandparents). Specifically, this is Italian immigrant cooking from the east coast: The Federal Hill name comes from the “little Italy” neighborhood in Providence, R.I.

    So the menu focuses on pasta with meatballs, pasta with sausage, baked pasta dishes, simple salads, garlic bread, grinders, pizza and calzones. The first time we dropped in, with our friends John and Judith, we sampled dishes like “drunken chicken,” sauteed with red wine, fresh mushrooms and served with a choice of pasta or veggies ($6.50) and a meltingly tender pork chop stuffed with sauteed spinach, mushrooms, ricotta and tomatoes, served with soup, salad or a side of pasta ($10).

    Wednesday is lasagna day, but as you’ll discover if you ask, the kitchen is no slave to the rules, and with a couple of hours notice is willing to do just about anything. Our first visit fell on a Friday, but another table had called early in the afternoon requesting lasagna, so the chef had cooked some up, which meant we could sample it as well. This was a meaty, cheesy lasagna ($5.50 — call ahead and you can have veggie lasagna too). This generosity of spirit prompted me to ask about an item that isn’t on the menu — spaghetti alla carbonara. The response? Call ahead, and maybe we’ll whip up a batch.

    A selection of lovely, nicely dressed salads make good starters. I’m partial to a tomato basil salad (two sizes, $2.50/$4.50) with an improvised feel that consists of greens, little cubes of fresh mozzarella, bright red disks of Roma tomatoes, generous sprinkles of fresh basil and a delicately balanced balsamic vinaigrette. The antipasto tossed salad ($3.50/$6) is a winner for lovers of meat and cheese, greens and dressing topped with tightly folded stacks of fine deli stuff.

    Of course, the iconic symbol of Italian immigrant cuisine is the meatball, and Federal Hill’s version is a proud exemplar: dense, full-flavored, little spheres that will have you clamoring for more. Until, that is, you try the Italian sausage, mild or hot, shipped in specially from Chicago, fennel-rich and perfectly ground (my advice, order the pasta of the day with meatballs ($5.75), and order a side of sausage for future reference; it’ll only set you back a buck or two).

    For the low carb bunch, there’s a three-egg omelet that can be packed with a variety of Italian fillings ($6) or a tarragon chicken salad, served on a bed of greens ($5.75). And for the sandwich bunch, I can attest that the grinders are served on fine, crusty loaves and the hot sausage version will leave you mopping your brow in sweet satisfaction ($5 for the six-inch version; $7 for nine-inch).

    Prices, as you can see, are modest, and portions are civilized rather than gargantuan. We’ve been satisfied at every meal, but never glutted, and frankly, that’s just the way we like it. Desserts are prepared on the premises, and one night the four of us shared a very intense chocolate cake with a peanut butter frosting.

    Beverage choices are, alas, non-alcoholic, though the restaurant has an application in the works and wine may be available this spring. Even without alcohol, this is a fine little restaurant that adds to a slowly growing independent restaurant scene in New Albany.

    Federal Hill Cafe is at 310 Pearl St. Hours are 9 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday; and 5-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday. The restaurant appears to be fully accessible for people using wheelchairs. Smoking is permitted; Visa and Mastercard are accepted. Call (812) 948-6646 for info.

    Federal Hill Cafe
    310 Pearl St.
    (812) 948-6646
    Rating: 4

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