Straight from the heart

Sun-Sentinel Dining Correspondent

Spend just five minutes in Francesco Lapi’s Cafe Italia, and there’s little doubt that this professional lives his passion.
An evening in this restaurant on the ground floor of an office building begins with a warm welcome followed by seating at one of 14 or so linen-covered tables. The unpretentious decor — walls painted a soothing fresco of deeply vibrant hues, each color playing nicely off the other — dovetails with the simplicity of the food.

It’s a subtle dinner menu, with moderate pricing and Italian standards, prepared Abruzzi style — sometimes excelling well beyond regional confines. Look for lasagna ala Bolognese; eggplant parmigiana; chicken cacciatore; zuppa di pesce; veal saltimbocca; and roast leg of lamb.

The perfect little Italian restaurant near me

Best of all, every table receives Lapi’s personal service and attention, in a one-man show supported by a small wait staff. He keeps the wine list in his head, so give him a rough idea of what you like and he’ll deliver appropriate selections.

Ask a few questions about the food and watch him shine. Don’t be surprised if he returns from the kitchen with bags of durum semolina pasta, or some other ingredient he thinks might interest you, to show his quality wares first hand. And, if you seem to be over-ordering, expect a gentle warning. Most portion sizes are large and there’s a quick caution about too many appetizers spoiling your entrees. It’s sort of like eating at your mother’s house — and I say that in the most loving sort of way.

Start with eggplant rollatini — unbreaded eggplant wrapped around bits of broccoli, topped with melted cheese and a delicate tomato sauce. Or, savor pleasing interpretations of refreshing salad caprese or prosciutto with melon.

I like risotto as a first course, so it wasn’t long before we reveled in Lapi’s risotto con porcini. This rice has the perfect bite and texture. The flavors of porcini mushrooms and onions marry beautifully.

Ditto on a richly luscious spaghetti carbonara — pasta cooked al dente, tossed with crispy pancetta, egg yolk, parmigiana and black pepper.

There was no leg of lamb prepared when we visited, so we took solace in the four gorgeous seared lamb chops Lapi recommended instead. Bathed in oil and garlic, the meat was nearly soft enough to cut with a fork.

Chicken marsala brought a plateful of boneless breasts with plenty of mushrooms in a sauce edging to the sweet and oily side, but the flavors were terrific.

The osso buco aficionado at our table thought was reasonable for the quality and quantity of tender veal slow-cooked in tomato sauce with celery, onions, carrots and red wine — and so did everyone who sampled it.

If you want an exquisite fresh fish experience, there’s no better choice than the signature yellowtail snapper. This stunning whole fish presentation (minus the head), arrives with its tail rising off the plate like a phoenix poised for flight. Mushrooms, diced tomatoes, wine and garlic delicately perfume the snow-white meat.

On the other hand, be sure you like porcinis before you order paparadelle mare e monti, a pasta and shrimp dish too intense with porcini flavors that also carried some unfortunately overcooked shrimp.

Have semifreddo cafe for dessert; it’s like chocolate mocha ice cream, or good American-style cheesecake with a crisp chocolate crust. While savoring the extra-creamy qualities, ponder this: What better way to experience a service business than with a man who works from his heart?

Critic Judith Stock
Sun Sentinel Dining Correspondent

But while dining recently at Cafe Italia in Fort Lauderdale, something hit us: “Hey,” we thought, “we’re eating real Italian food.” – And what’s more, virtually everyone dining at this small, unpretentious cafe was speaking Italian

The Miami Herald Dining Section

You could visit an Italian restaurant every night of the year and still not exhaust all the choices in South Florida. But while dining recently at Cafe Italia in Fort Lauderdale, something hit us: “Hey,” we thought, “we’re eating real Italian food.” And what’s more, virtually everyone dining at this small, unpretentious cafe was speaking Italian, a sign there’s authenticity coming out of la cucina.

Owner Francesco Lapi grew up in Abruzzo by the Adriatic Sea. His early memories stretch back to days spent on the beach and dinners of fresh fish cooked simply with the best ingredients — no compromises. It is these recipes, prepared by his mother and grandmother, a former professor at Villa Santa Maria, the famed Italian cooking school where Lapi learned much about his trade, that he now serves in his cafe.

Cafe Italia, open two and a half years, is easy to miss in the Roselli Office Building on North Federal Highway, a few doors from the exotic dancing action at Pure Platinum. Nobody’s dancing on these tables, draped with white tablecloths and cloth napkins. But if Cafe Italia lacks exotic excitement or the glamour of a pricier joint, it does commit to good food that won’t empty your wallet —

Allure of Italy

There’s a quirky, but Old-World charm. Inside the homey dining area, which seats 50 (another 16 seats are outside), shelves are lined with Italian wines; opera plays in the background. Lapi makes the rounds, teasing kids and giving you advice about what you should order. “You don’t need an appetizer — portions are big; you’ll take it all home. . . . Forget soup; it’s summer.” And he’s right. There’s much to eat without the extras, but you don’t have to overdo Italian. The misconception is that Italian food is heavy and reeking with garlic, but well- prepared Italian food is made with light sauces and enhanced, not overwhelmed, by garlic and onion.

So no garlicky rolls dripping with oil at Cafe Italia. You get Italian bread, not heated, but very fresh and quickly replenished. After first advising us against an appetizer, Lapi sensed we wanted to try something and told the server to bring Caprese. The slices of mozzarella (we learned they often have imported buffalo mozzarella, so ask for it) are of fine quality, sprinkled with oil and basil, atop tomatoes.

Complimentary salads are often a tiny bowl of iceberg, but here you get a big plate with firm ruby tomato wedges, served atop four types of lettuce, shredded carrots and sliced cucumbers, all garden fresh, served with oil and vinegar and Parmesan cheese on the side. You can also request a homemade Balsamic vinaigrette made with extra-virgin olive oil, oregano and Parmesan.

Exceptional Italian Seafood in Fort Lauderdale

Along with the regular menu, which offers 15 plus entrees, there’s a list of nightly specials.

Yellowtail snapper, a fresh catch this night, was excellent. Finding fish of this quality at this price in South Florida is a rare catch indeed. Presentation was terrific: The fish was butterflied, tail intact, the succulent white meat exposed. The fish was sauteed in extra-virgin olive oil (Lapi always stresses this point) and wine — a good Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio, not cooking wine — with chopped tomatoes, mushrooms and garlic, seasoned with salt and pepper and garnished with black olives. The fish was cooked not a moment too long, oozing juices, each bite worth savoring.

It made us wish we had ordered other seafood dishes, like Trio Adriatica, with shrimp, scallops and clams, or slow-cooked salmon. But Cafe Italia also does a good job with meat. You can get items like filet mignon in a light cream sauce or osso buco, but we chose chicken. The classic Marsala was buttery tender, thin slices of chicken sauteed with garlic and Marsala, with sliced mushrooms. The sauce is fragrant, slightly sweet from the wine. Entrees come with your choice of spaghetti, linguine, penne or rigatoni, properly al dente and with a light tomato sauce.

Chicken cacciatore is a simple dish elevated, but not dominated, by a wonderful sauce of mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, garlic, wine and green peppers. You can actually taste the chicken, seasoned with rosemary.

Cannoli was the only item remaining for dessert this eve. The cafe was out of the large pastry shells, so we were given two small ones, light and crisp, not at all greasy, filled with a light, whipped ricotta. It’s a sweet way to end your meal. Top it off with a cup of cappuccino or a glass of wine and you’ll want to say Bravo, Cafe Italia Fort Lauderdale!

Critic Rochelle Koff
The Herald Dining Section