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.The Miami Herald Dining Section
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
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 sautéed 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 ossobuco, but we chose chicken. The classic Marsala was buttery tender, thin slices of chicken sautéed 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