City Link Magazine
When people recommend restaurants, I always listen, then take their suggestions with a grain of salt. But a friend called recently, and when he calls, I pay close attention, because he rarely raves about restaurants.
Said friend first learned to cook at his Italian grandmother’s knee before going to professional cooking schools in the Northeast and Europe. He is also the owner and chef of one of South Florida’s finest seafood restaurants.
So when he said the nine-year-old Cafe Italia serves the finest Italian food this side of the Old Country, his recommendation, hyperbole aside, did not go unheeded.
The Cafe occupies the ground floor of an office building on Federal Highway midway between Commercial and Oakland Park boulevards. Plate glass windows form two exterior walls, and the side facing the building’s lobby is covered with large, colorful posters.
Wall sections are painted lime green, butterscotch or a light cranberry, and a dark-wood bar sits in front of the wall opposite the posters. Tablecloths and napkins are starched white linen. Decor is unpretentious at best, but here the food’s the thing.
Francesco Lapi is the owner and chef of the cafe. He is a short, relatively quiet man but becomes quite animated when discussing his food, and the pride in his voice is clearly discernible.
He is proud of the food he buys, which is always first-quality and mostly Italian, and he will bring some of his ingredients to your table even without your asking — not to show off but to reinforce the notion that he does things his way.
His menu contains nothing you wouldn’t find in many other Italian restaurants, but everything he cooks just tastes different than anything you’ve had elsewhere. Ingredients are uncommonly fresh, pastas are strictly Italian, and his sublime sauces are rich with flavor but ethereally light.
Take his eggplant rollatini, for example. Despite the melted cheese, bits of bright-green broccoli stuffed within and very tomatoey and exceptionally light sauce, the taste of just-picked eggplant remained the mainstay of the dish. This is one dish you won’t quickly forget.
Other appetizers are simple affairs but as good as they get. Broccoli raab and Caprese salad, thick tomato slices with smoky mozzarella, made outstanding starters. And Mediterranean flat bread and prosciutto with melon were equally delicious.
The pasta dishes we tried were sublime. Spaghetti alla carbonara combines pasta with pancetta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, black pepper and an egg yolk for a mingling of flavors that will linger long after the end of the meal.
Lapi marries wide pappardelle noodles with thick, strongly aromatic and earthy porcini mushrooms. He then adds large, succulent shrimp that are perfectly cooked, tosses in garlic and wine and finishes the mixture in a heady but light cream sauce that is also unforgettable.
The lusty aromas from the dish reach your table long before the food does — a clear indication of just how wonderful it is. The cafe also serves porcini mushrooms with wine and perfectly cooked risotto.
Exceptionally firm penne mixes well in a cream sauce garnished with olives, crisp broccoli florets and mushrooms. And if you like lasagna, Lapi layers the noodles with a light bechamel sauce and mozzarella that melts like lava, then tops it all with his exceptional Bolognese sauce.
The usual chicken and veal dishes — cacciatore, Milanese, Livornese and Marsala — are available, and every one is several steps ahead of the competition.
Osso buco and roasted leg of lamb are also served. Seafood offerings include dolphin, salmon, tuna, sole and snapper.
Yellowtail snapper is Lapi’s signature dish, and it was extraordinary in its simplicity. Half a snapper, with its yellow tail perched at the end of the plate, was so fresh it had probably been caught the afternoon of our visit.
It sat in a wine-and- garlic sauce and was garnished with button mushrooms and diced tomatoes — so simple, yet so delectable. Snapper never tasted like this.
Given the flavors of previous courses, we could never expect desserts to measure up. They were very good but below the standards set by the rest of the meal.
Tiramisu was soaked with liquor, and the top layer of custard quivered when we touched it. Ricotta cheesecake was nice and not too sweet, but the chocolate mousse was served nearly frozen. Still, Cafe Italia does Italian food like no other restaurant, and will forever change your thinking on Italian cooking.
Critic William Fox
CityLink Fine Dining Critic