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Stepping up the game at Cafe Zoma

February 6, 2018
Zoma's chevre crepe with asparagus, mushroom, spinach, chevre, balsamic reduction and an optional fried egg.
Zoma's chevre crepe with asparagus, mushroom, spinach, chevre, balsamic reduction and an optional fried egg.

Cafe Zoma on Atwood Avenue is now in its fourth life, recently taken over by two brothers with impressive restaurant backgrounds.

Kristian and Conner Di Persio bought the homey coffee shop in July, and made few physical changes, other than extending the kitchen area toward the front windows, adding a reclaimed wood wall, and installing wooden bench-seating.

They’ve also stepped up the menu considerably with excellent breakfast sandwiches, crepes, soups and panini.

Most importantly, the coffee is brewed stronger than it was under Espresso Royale, the previous owner.

The brothers have kept the Cafe Zoma name, which goes back 17 years and was given to the shop by its founders, Zoe Oakley and Martha Brigham. The women created the name by combining the first two letters of their first names. From 2005 to 2009, Ann Freiwald owned Zoma.

The Di Persios grew up in Antioch, Illinois, halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, with a father who was a partner in 23 Illinois and Iowa Ruby Tuesday restaurants.

Kristian, 33, worked as a server in one of the restaurants, but Conner, 26, said he was too young then. Kristian’s last job was at Graze, where he was front of house manager and event coordinator. Conner has been the full-time kitchen manager at the Old Fashioned for nearly four years.

Zoma still uses Espresso Royale for its basic drip coffee (small $1.95, medium $2.20, large $2.50), which is available self-serve. There’s always a house blend, which is a dark Italian roast, a decaf and another coffee that changes daily. On my most recent visit, I was pleased with the Peruvian fair-trade roast coffee, accurately described on its tag as “smooth, rich and medium.”

The Di Persios have switched over to JBC Coffee Roasters, formerly Johnson Brothers Coffee, for their espresso and pour-over coffee.

My daughter called her Ruby Red loose leaf tea ($2.75), “sour, but good.” The helpful barista called it the shop’s most popular tea when my daughter was trying to choose, and let her sniff it. “It tastes pretty much like it smells,” he said.

Conner said the chai tea they’ve started making is selling well, too.

When it comes to food, I’m not sure what I like more, Zoma’s distinctive breakfast sandwiches or its savory crepes.

The breakfast sandwiches ($5.50), served all day, are interesting in that they come on a house-made focaccia, which is novel. A bacon, egg and pepper jack combo was strong, even with limp bacon. The cheese added just the right amount of zing.

The panini ($7.50) are served on the same focaccia. The bella was a winning combination of portabello mushrooms, roasted red pepper, provolone and aioli. The caprese, another vegetarian sandwich, had the familiar lineup of tomato, pesto, spinach and mozzarella, and benefited from a balsamic glaze.

Also getting a boost from a drizzle of balsamic vinegar was a crepe ($7.50) with creamy chevre, asparagus, mushrooms and spinach. Even my friend who professes not to like goat cheese was impressed. A chicken crepe ($8.50) was generous in the amount of meat, and benefited from roasted garlic, mozzarella and a hint of pesto. A salad of tomato and spinach came on top.

There are usually two homemade soups ($5.50), and a zucchini and kale soup with shells had a thin, well-seasoned broth with cayenne and cumin, and just enough vegetables. My one complaint is that soup only comes in a bowl, when I’d like the option of a cup.

From the bakery case I enjoyed a slice of savory focaccia ($4) that Kristian kindly heated up for me. It had ham, spinach, onions and a small amount of cheddar baked into the top. It’s a nice option for those just looking for a mid-afternoon snack and not a whole meal.

A peanut butter bar ($2.75) with a soft layer of chocolate on top was the perfect not-too-sweet dessert, but the scones looked tempting, too. Zoma has a sign in the window boasting that everything is baked in-house, and that’s a big selling point.

Zoma’s walls have long served as an art gallery, and that’s remained true under the Di Persios. Right now customers can surround themselves with charming, colorful self-portraits by third-graders at nearby Marquette Elementary School.

Conner said he and his brother may still change the name of the shop.

“It’s something we’re considering just because there’s a bit of a disconnect for us owning a business and not really having our own name on it,” he said. “It’ll be awhile. We’ll have to make enough changes for it to be a thing. But right now it’s staying Zoma.”

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