Nestled into a medical office park and not too far from the hideous clusters of undergrad housing near Autzen Stadium is a coffee shop that seems very out of place. It seems, in fact, like it would rather be in another country -- Italy. The walls of Caffe Ponte Vecchio have been painted with a mural of Florence, Italy, the town where Ponte Vecchio -- it translates as "old bridge" -- arcs over the Arno, connecting two sides of the two with a bridge built up with little jewelry shops.
The people who run this shop seem to be from that same region -- though we've never met, I've heard both Mario, who is the owner, and Rosa, who is the baker, speaking Italian to guests and friends. Like most coffee shops, they offer a wide range of espresso drinks, coffee and tea; unlike most places, they bake their own breads and treats on-site, and they have pasta, pizza, and calzone next to the panini on their menu. And these aren't microwaved hot-pockets were talking about, but fresh dishes with seasonal ingredients: on one visit, they had an eggplant calzone that nearly stole my heart, and my wallet. I would've been happy to lose either to it.
The coffee and espresso are good -- dark and rich on both counts -- and you pay for that privilege, as Caffe Ponte Vecchio has drinks that rival and sometimes beat Starbucks for priciness. Then again, for that price, you also get to imagine, briefly, that you're back in Florence. Of course a real café over there wouldn't look like this -- Italian bars are more likely to feature old wooden boothes than the brand new lime-green leather couches that this café offers -- but in both, you have a lovely view of Il Duomo, and it's nice to be able to pretend.
What you won't have to fake is a deep love of their sweet pastries. We've tried a number of them, from the shop's specialty -- a lavender scone with chocolate -- to some of the other comes-and-goes goods. The cannoli, which are stuffed with fresh ricotta and mini chocolate chips, are divine, with a wrap that breaks delicately in your mouth, the perfect marriage of flour and olive oil. Every other sweet I've had a chance to sample has been equally good. Don't think you can go here and not partake, either: nearly every time we've visited, Rosa has been around, baking something new. If that smell doesn't entice you, well, you may not be human.
This makes a good stop for coffee, lunch, or even a very early dinner. They offer a few outdoor tables on their patio, and though the view is only of traffic on Garden Way, the taste is really, very nearly, of Italy.
Location: Chase Village / 330 Garden Way, intersection of Garden Way and Centennial.
Hours: 7 to 6 daily; closes at about 3 on weekends, though hours seem to vary.