The Educated Palate

Stony Brook University’s new on-campus eatery redefines cafeteria fare for students, faculty and food enthusiasts alike.

Like many of you, I’m pretty positive that had it not been for coffee and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I may as well have starved through college. Oh the times, they are a-changin’. On the ever so large campus of Stony Brook University (SBU), there are numerous options when it comes to grabbing a bite to eat, but at the new Simons Center Café, located on the second floor of the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics, a bite to eat is an understatement to the 180th degree. Executive chef Paolo Fontana, with the guidance of café own- er and renowned chef Guy Reuge, offers up a daily lunch mix of five- star cuisine within the setting of a stylishly decorated, architecturally pleasing and all-around modern version of the cafeteria.

When John Morgan, the celebrated mathematician and director of the Simons Center, decided he wanted to incorporate a high-end cafeteria into his building, he modeled it after the cafeteria at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where he studied. Done on a much smaller scale, Guy Reuge, chef and proprietor of Mirabelle Tavern in Stony Brook Village, took on the challenge and handed the reigns over to Paolo Fontana, a previous student of SBU and an employee of his at Mirabelle.

Opening its doors in May 2010, SCGP Café, as it is referred to, has become the culinary masterpiece of Fontana. With a menu that changes daily and consists of everything from classic and contemporary to vegan and kosher cuisine, the café welcomes students, faculty and the public to enjoy lunch at its very finest.

“I never question the menu. Everyone loves it, people are very happy with his [Fontana’s] work,” happily explains Reuge, who in 2010 was among the James Beard Foundation Awards’ semifinalists for “Best Chef in the Northeast.”
Fontana, who, prior to his days as a psychology major at SBU, studied at the Culinary Institute of America’s

Manhattan campus, has also worked at some of New York City’s finest eateries, including Gramercy Tavern and Tom Colicchio’s Craft. He has served as apprentice to world-recognized chef Mario Batali at Babbo and as sous-chef to acclaimed chef Michael Romano at Union Square Café.

He spent some time at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, before heading to Tampa, Florida, where he owned his own restaurant, Bracci. Having thought he had enough of the culinary world, Fontana left his restaurant and his craft behind and came back to New York to begin classes at SBU. “Studying psychology made me appreciate and embrace the restaurant industry again.” Fontana admits, “I wouldn’t change a thing about my journey. It has landed me here!”

And here is a delicious place to be, I gather, as food begins to emerge through each swing of the kitchen door and makes its way to the display window as the clock strikes noon. Fontana explains the food challenge to me as I watch each boldly colored and beautifully plated tray get settled in for the lunch rush, which runs Monday through Friday from noon to 2:00 p.m. “I see the café as the best restaurant in a small town of 16,000 people. But here, we’re feeding a whole different caliber of people. Most of our guests are well-traveled and know food. We need to satisfy the tastes and needs of people from all over the world.” I see what he means as diners begin to arrive, anxiously approaching the line to see what SCGP Café has in store for them today.

It’s a mix of students and scholars, their conversations vary from geometric formulas to plans for Friday night; their nationalities differ; their food philosophies contrast. It’s an interesting mix of people, all of whom are, without a doubt, enjoying every bite of their lunch. So much so that I’m handed a folded piece of paper that was left behind by a diner. As I open it up, I notice that there are numbers and letters composing formulas that are foreign to me on one side of the paper and this written on the reverse: “Many academics are happy to find healthy and delicious food outside of the home. It’s rare, and the Café has it,” signed Dennis Sullivan, Mathematics. “This is who I’m feeding!” exclaims Fontana proudly, “A man that has written his own theorem! It’s amazing!”

The SCGP Café is open to the public not only for lunch but also for special events, which include Full Moon Wine & Cheese parties on the rooftop garden, with telescopes provided by and for the astronomy department. In addition, some of their own products are available for purchase, including homemade jam and housemade sodas.

So will we be seeing more of these high-end eateries popping up on college campuses? “I think that every great college should have a café like ours. People that are responsible for molding minds, [who] potentially change the world through invention and theorem and influence policy, should not just consume food that is off the shelf and under-inspired. They should all be granted a lunch break that leaves them smiling.”

I make my way closer to the line, examining the menu and pairing it with the dishes that sit before me, a friendly face waits, ready to scoop and plate as I see fit. The prices are approachable, with the wild Coho salmon accompanied by an heirloom tomato salad holding the top spot at $18 and a pizzette topped with mission figs, olive oil and fresh garlic coming in at a mere $6. “We source our products locally, everything is super fresh,” explains Fontana as he sees me eyeing the seared Long Island duck breast, served with new crop Brussels sprouts and sage ($17). “We are in a LEED-certified building, so everything is sustainable. We use organic product whenever possible,” he continues. “I base each menu on the feel and tone of the day. When it’s nice and bright out, like today, I make uplifting dishes. When it’s cool and cloudy, I gear more toward hearty, home-cooked meals.”

To complete my lunch, I am given a beautiful little pastry that I’m told is a French macaroon, at the center of which I’ll find a Jamesport Vineyards Pinot Noir reduction. I take a bite and need not say anything before Fontana chimes in: “Our pastry chef, Caity Gable, is an intern. She’s wonderful!” I am then told that every day from 3:00–4:00 p.m. the faculty is welcomed to enjoy a spread of tea and desserts, held in the meeting room upstairs. “It’s very Good Will Hunting,” Fontana says with a smile. “I wish I understood what they talked about. But at least I know they like the food!”

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