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Review: Pro’s Epicurean Market & Cafe embodies passion for food, with a touch of family roots

The family matriarch is the source of the recipe for an exceptionally light manicotti dish - whose secret, according to her son, is a homemade pasta ‘crepe’ at Pro’s Epicurean Market & Cafe.
The family matriarch is the source of the recipe for an exceptionally light manicotti dish - whose secret, according to her son, is a homemade pasta ‘crepe’ at Pro’s Epicurean Market & Cafe. jleonard@newsobserver.com

In just three years, Mid-Town Square has established itself as a focal point of the downtown Cary renaissance. The office and retail complex is home to an award-winning brewery and taproom (Bond Brothers), a Neapolitan pizzeria (Faulisi), a modern twist on a bagel shop (Big Dom’s), and a first-rate cocktail bar (SideBar).

Practically next door, Postmaster offers Cary its first taste of the deceptively unpretentious creations of a new generation of chefs, and serves it up in a setting that would be at home in downtown Raleigh.

In the center of it all sits Pro’s Epicurean Market & Cafe, a family-run restaurant and gourmet grocery reminiscent of a New York Italian deli. You can’t help but wonder how such an unapologetically old school place would fit in amid all the trendiness.

Quite well, as it turns out. Nearly two years after opening, Pro’s is flourishing, with diners routinely spilling out of the small dining room onto the umbrella-shaded patio — where you’ll invariably spot at least one table sharing a lavishly garnished cheese and charcuterie platter and glasses of wine from Pro’s small but well-chosen global wine list.

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Pro’s Epicurean Market & Cafe serves up a mostly Italian menu seasoned with a generous helping of French classics. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Key to the restaurant’s success is owner/chef Richard Procida, a Long Island native who grew up in an Italian family and began cooking at an early age. Procida went on to attend the Culinary Institute of America and work for several years in restaurants in New York and Pennsylvania before changing careers. When he retired after 35 years in that second career in the newspaper industry, he returned to his first passion.

Pro’s Epicurean is the embodiment of that passion, serving up a mostly Italian menu seasoned with a generous helping of French classics (escargot a la bourguignonne, crêpe Parisienne and quiche Lorraine, to name a few) from his formal training days. You’ll also find a sprinkling of Cajun spices here and there (on grilled shrimp available as a starter or main course, or in the gumbo ya ya that sometimes turns up as the soup du jour), and a splash or two of Mediterranean specialties (including lamb kebabs with grapes, tzatziki and a Greek salad).

Classic training is also evident in some Italian presentations. Capesante rosolate, grilled jumbo scallops wrapped in speck dell’Alto Adige, come to mind.

But tor the heart of his offering, the chef returns to his family roots. Francesca Pro’s sausage pie, a double pastry crust filled with crumbled Italian sausage in a rich gravy (and we’re not talking “tomato gravy” here), is named for Procida’s mother, who created the recipe.

The family matriarch is also the source of the recipe for an exceptionally light manicotti dish — whose secret, according to her son, is a homemade pasta “crepe.” A fresh, bright marinara doesn’t hurt, either.

Procida also makes burrata in house, and offers it as a starter topped with chopped parsley and a drizzle of olive oil, and served with grilled rounds of baguette. Don’t miss it.

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Pro’s Epicurean Market & Cafe’s lavishly garnished cheese and charcuterie platter. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

And by all means, if you hear a rumor that the soup of the day is Italian wedding, cancel any other plans and go get it. A deeply savory bowlful of grease-slicked chicken broth spangled with bite-size meatballs (scratch-made, naturally, with Italian sausage), diced carrots, tatters of escarole, and acini di pepe pasta, it will make you wish you had grown up in the Procida family.

A brief but varied entree offering is divided into separate categories for seafood, chicken and meat, with a handful of options in each category. You’ll find a few perennial favorites such as chicken parmesan, veal scaloppine, and grilled Italian sausage with peppers and onions, as well as a couple of outliers (crab cakes, chicken cordon bleu).

For my money, porchetta is the succulent star of the show. The dish is a true labor of love for Procida, who takes no shortcuts in preparing this classic roulade of butterflied pork loin, crushed red peppers and herbs wrapped in pork belly and air-dried for three days before slow-roasting. The chef slices it thin and offers it as an entree topped with chimichurri, or on a sandwich called the Donatello.

The Donatello is one of nearly a dozen sandwiches, all available on your choice of baguette, Italian bread or sub roll and served with Cajun chips. The selection is as varied as the artists the sandwiches are named for, ranging from Michelangelo (prosciutto di parma, fresh mozzarella, crisped pancetta, broccoli rabe, olive oil and roasted red pepper pesto) to Matisse (fried shrimp, greens, tomato, rosemary lemon aioli).

Disappointments are few and minor, the only two of note that I’ve encountered being a plate of dry farfalle e pesto, and a pastry crust that had gone soft on the sausage pie.

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Richard Procida makes burrata in house, and offers it as a starter topped with pine nuts, chopped parsley and a drizzle of olive oil, and served with grilled rounds of baguette. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Your mouth will no doubt water at the display of cheesecakes and other sweet temptations in the pastry case. My advice is to go with one of Procida’s homemade desserts: creme brûlée, or strawberry mousse. That would be the same family recipe strawberry mousse that was served at Francesca Procida’s 90th birthday celebration.

You may even see her in the restaurant from time to time. You will almost certainly see Richard Procida’s son, Brian, who works alongside a friendly, eager-to-please wait staff. Combined with the food, it adds up to a warm, homey feel that some family-run places manage to evoke, even against a utilitarian backdrop of refrigerated cases and grocery shelves.

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Pro’s Epicurean Market & Cafe

211 E. Chatham St., Cary

919-377-1788

prosepicurean.com

Cuisine: Italian, eclectic

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Prices: $$

Atmosphere: casual, compact cafe and gourmet grocery

Noise level: low

Service: friendly and attentive

Recommended: charcuterie and cheese platter, Italian wedding soup, burrata, capesante rosolate, manicotti, porchetta

Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday

Reservations: accepted

Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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