Words & Photo by Betsy DiJulio
When a chemist loses her job, what’s a gal to do? Make waffles, of course. Wait, what?
Cristina Angelo, co-owner of Mea Culpa with her partner and chef, Kris Harvey, has a master’s degree in chemistry and, until her company was purchased by another, a fancy job in sales that frequently took her to Philly. Across the street from her hotel was a little place that turned out liege waffles—a yeasty, chewy, caramelized cousin of the Belgian variety—whose aroma seduced her and whose flavor hooked her.
Having been volunteering at the now closed Field Guide in Norfolk to learn more about a commercial kitchen, she asked for employment, rented out her condo and sold her car. It was a major lifestyle change, but one for which she is grateful. While working at the restaurant, she and Kris—who originally earned his chops at The Boot, formerly in Norfolk—launched a pop-up shop called Waffletina, often working out of breweries, to “sling waffle sandwiches.”
But one rezoning, a couple of business loans, and a few tax credits later, the pair found themselves the owners of Mea Culpa. The café is located in a charming three-story turn-of-the-century house in Park Place. The couple lives upstairs, prepares exquisite food from an 8-item menu downstairs, and brews espressos from a machine that cost more than Angelos’s car.
Situated between Toast and the Handsome Biscuit, two doors in from 25th Street—with on-street parking in front and unheard-of lot parking behind—this sweet spot is easy to miss. They may—or may not—have put out a chalkboard sign that simply reads, “Coffee.” Walking up the steps to the wrap-around porch with outdoor seating feels like entering someone’s grandma’s welcoming home.
But just inside the front door, instead of floral wingbacks and lace doilies is a rarefied, open, sun-drenched space with a mid-century Scandinavian vibe. Light walls and reclaimed-looking hardwood floors—plus a geometric teal-and-white tile pattern behind the counter—are the backdrop for sleek and stylish table seating. Along one wall are my favorite seating options: arched mirrors, mini-wall-mounted black tables with a faux fold-down construction, and pairs of backless wood and steel stools.
The creative menu with unexpected intersections of ingredients, while not vegan per se, offers pastries, small plates, teas and coffees, the latter from Three Ships Coffee Roasters in VA Beach. Enjoy it with oat (my favorite) or almond milk. The coconut loaf, waffles, and two waffle sandwiches (one with tofu) are off limits for vegans, but not vegetarians (just omit the chicken from the Chicken Waffle Sandwich). Of the small plates, I chose the Savory Oatmeal (hold the fried egg, $6.5), with a texture similar to risotto, but could have—and will soon have—the Pearl Cous Cous Salad (toasted Israeli pearl cous cous, roasted fennel, greens, pomegranates, green onion, toasted walnuts, $7.5) and The Fresh Salad (cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, shallots, puffed rice, tamarind vinaigrette, mint chutney, $8).
The chemist and her chef are culinary alchemists. I don’t remember when I have ever tasted an amalgamation of layered flavors and textures that surpassed the savory oatmeal, a first for me. When Angelo sat down to chat with me, it quickly became clear why. The steel cut oats are soaked overnight in house-made veggie stock and then cooked in that same stock. Cippolini onions are confited before being charred and folded into the mixture. Walnut halves are toasted in the oil from the onion confit before being cascaded over the top. Redolent of chili spice, studded with plump golden raisins, and garnished with fresh parsley, this hearty dish will have you scraping, if not licking, your bowl.
Encouraged to name their coffee house after Angelo’s grandmother, she and Harvey chose Mea Culpable—”I am culpable”—a name more in keeping with their vision. Like the coffee houses in Turkey, where revolutionary change was born one sip at a time, they hope to become a gathering spot for politics- and policy-steeped conversation, meet-ups, and events; a place where customers can become better informed about American culpability around the world and more willing to engage. In fact, they were hosting a Bernie Saunders event later on the day I visited.
It is a savory setting in which to take on some of the more unsavory aspects of global citizenry. Or just enjoy a hearty bowl of savory oatmeal.
Mea Culpa: 2410 Colonial Avenue, Norfolk, 757.805.1727, www.meaculpanorfolk.com, Open 8-3, W-S; closed M-T.