Upon entering Scola, the recently opened BYOB in Cape May Court House, I instinctively looked down at the jumpsuit I had thrown on, wondering if I had made a wrong choice in attire and thinking it may not be cool enough for this joint. Yes, I said Scola was in Court House. But with its urban swagger and ultra-hip atmosphere, Scola seems to have been transplanted there straight from Williamsburg. Brooklyn, not Virginia.
The exterior is deceiving. The building is modest with the name Scola in Art Deco font placed subtly in the window, behind which is a glass-vased candle and, behind that, a metal grid the size of the pane that’s somewhat reminiscent of a Mondrian. You get the feeling that this might be another one of those speakeasy spots that popped up ubiquitously five or six years ago. But once inside, there is not a thing that hearkens back to the Prohibition Era. In fact, with the exception of the historic building in which it is housed and some seriously groovy throwback ‘70s funk, Scola eschews anything having to do with the past.
Part of Kara Restaurant Group (George’s Place, The Y.B., Shamone), Scola is not run by one of the Karapanagiotis brothers, Yianni or Peter, but by Ben Scola, a New Hampshire native who worked with the Karapanagiotis family since he moved here a few years back with fiancé Jacklyn Buckingham, who also works at the restaurant.
Scola is tiny. And that’s not a bad thing. In a room with less than 10 tables that can seat up to 40 people at a time, it ensures significant personalized service.
Because of its historic stature, the former shoe store built in 1908 could not be completely renovated. That’s not bad either. A wall of exposed brick with wooden slats peeking through every few rows holds up one side of the dining room, giving it a rustic charm. And though Scola and his father Bruce took care to refinish the original hardwood floors, the marble step at the front entrance still has a concave impression from the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of feet that have stepped there through the decades.
“We revitalized a gorgeous building,” Scola says. “We want to ramp up the historic district. We want a thriving historic area for Cape May Court House — where people can walk here, meet friends and socialize.”
Aesthetic touches include the smattering of votive candles on tables and shelving to create a warm glow and three rows of string lights that line the ceiling. A fresh sprig of rosemary is arranged with silverware inside each napkin. Artwork is sparse in this simple yet trendy space, with a few Sinatra album covers hung on a wall and an original painting with a Pollock-esque flair (but a much cheerier palette than the master would have used) done by Scola.
“We tried to create an atmosphere where people can relax and we encourage them to enjoy themselves (and) try new foods,” Scola states. “We put atmosphere first, (but) food is the foundation.”
Scola, who has “worn all the hats” in his long restaurant career, has “enjoyed every aspect of the restaurant business — offering services, interacting with guests, creating food — it’s what it’s all about.”
The thoroughly modern menu of that food, which Scola precisely calls “unique and creative,” is conceived from a mélange of ideas from Chef Scola, another chef Nick Price and Kara’s corporate chef Peter Karapanagiotis. Buckingham, who learned to bake from her Aunt Barb, focuses on devising the to-die-for desserts, as well as putting her artistic touch on presentations of the meal.
“We get some ideas, hash them out, try them out in the kitchen. It’s a creative expression,” says Scola, who grew up in an Italian family where food, he notes, was all about love and sharing. “Sharing food is essential to communication.”
Communication is highly encouraged at Scola. If you’re lacking a topic, just order the Cape May Salts on a bed of rock salt. You’ll see your dish coming all the way from the back of the room. It’s the one with a haze of white steam emanating from it, arriving at your table as if in a cloud. That’s thanks to the liquid nitrogen added because A) it keeps the oysters chilled and B) because it looks cool. “It’s a conversation starter,” Scola adds.
With a meticulous attention to gorgeous detail, presentation is revered here and is outmatched only by the food.
Small, shiny copper serving pots and pans are utilized in practically every course. Order the Parma prosciutto — a big slab of which sits atop the service bar to the rear. It’s accompanied by cantaloupe, Manchego cheese, arugula, cherry tomatoes and red Cerignola and black cured olives, each on a separate petite pan, with the prosciutto as the centerpiece on a large square white dish thinly and neatly arranged on a diagonal.
Espresso cups are placed at every setting. They are for the complimentary soup, poured from a copper dipper. The evening we went it was Parmesan tomato basil. It was outstanding, with crispy spears of garlic bread for dipping. (Rivaling that were the mini goat cheese cones topped with bacon bits and toasted sesame jimmies — think of it as a savory update to a palate-cleansing sorbet.)
Soups are kind of Chef Nick’s thing. We’re going back for his cheddar and bacon made with Court House (CoHo) Beer’s “Mechanic and Main,” named for the intersection where Scola is.
Scola utilizes much of what is available from the shore, like farm-fresh veggies and local seafood, for its contemporary American dishes.
Items of note include the Kobe beef meatloaf with a house-made smoked fig ketchup and the bacon-wrapped scallops served with chorizo-stuffed peppers.
Evening specials are just that — special. Guests could not stop raving to us about the salmon en croute — a deliciously rich filet of salmon with spinach and mascarpone delicately wrapped in a flaky phyllo dough and placed on top of grilled asparagus. Another was a tender pork ribeye with California pears and cranberry chutney, a springtime spin on Thanksgiving dinner.
Whatever you choose, do make room for dessert. Although, some are nearly impossible to finish in one sitting — like the tiramisu cheesecake — even if shared. About the size of a small full-sized cheesecake, this rich and wonderful combination of ladyfingers, mascarpone cheese, coffee-flavoring and chocolate is moist and dense and delectable. And it was artistically presented with a thin crisp of chocolate precariously perched on top and dusted with cocoa powder with an imprint of “Scola” on the plate.
As for the crème brulee, it will have you thinking that it came straight out of a Parisian patisserie. Also presented on a plate with liquid nitrogen, the perfectly crispy top preserves a pudding-like center loaded with pure sweetness and joy.
Future plans at Scola include an outdoor section in the backyard which should hold another 60 seats — that’s almost double of what the inside holds — as well as a mercantile taco shop.
For now though, Scola is happy with the reaction his new, namesake restaurant has made on the community.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the support,” he says. “The Karapanagiotis brothers have been in Cape May for 20 years and have created a following — (and) we’ve been fortunate to be a part of that.
“Guests who come and try our restaurant … expect the same service, quality and atmosphere as, say George’s Place or Shamone. We want the customer to leave Scola having had an excellent experience, maybe they tried something new, and made a connection. Many customers who have followed us through the growth of the Kara Group will realize we are one big happy family.”