It seems as if I spend my life in Italian restaurants picking apart menus, dining rooms and meals, trying to discern the relative value of a dining experience.
But the truth is that I believe the best restaurants, Italian or otherwise, are not necessarily the ones with the finest Riedel glasses, French- trained waiters and the oldest balsamic vinegar — though that certainly can help — but rather those that give diners a good feeling of welcoming and home. The ones that convey a feeling of conviviality, that entice the appetite not only with fine food but with fine hospitality.
Café Italia Fort Lauderdale is just such a place. Though the decor is strictly generic strip mall and the tableware equally unimpressive, owner Francesco Lapi is such an omnipresent source of warmth that it is hard to find much fault with the place.
On a recent Wednesday, my husband and a friend visiting from Alabama stopped for a late dinner. Lapi greeted us literally with open arms, seating us and asking how we knew about his 8- year-old storefront.
He immediately dispatched a waiter to bring us bread and take our drink orders, but Lapi came back to describe his wine-by-the-bottle collection, lacking a list. With some slight prompting he was happy to tell us the prices, which ranged from about $25 for a simple Chianti to more than $100. We chose a velvety Amarone that was perfect for sipping with the crusty peasant bread. As for the bread, it would have been better warmed and accompanied by olive oil instead of butter, which, incidentally, is served in fast-food-style foil blocks.
We took some time to look over the simple and compact menu with dishes mostly from central Italy but with some representative favorites from all over the boot. It turns out Lapi is from the Abruzzo.
For appetizers we chose eggplant rollatini , two evenly breaded and gently fried fillets rolled around a warm filling of ricotta cheese and an untraditional flower of broccoli. It was covered in a sauce of crushed tomatoes that was tangy and fresh if not exciting.
We also sampled the rappini, known in my family as broccoli di rabe ($6.99) and found it to be just fine. The tender and pleasantly bitter leaves were bathed in olive oil and accompanied by half a dozen garlic cloves sauté ed to a perfect golden brown.
A simple bowl of pasta e fagioli was hearty and satisfying with lots of beans and enough ditalini that was perhaps a bit too mushy, some celery and tomatoes, and the requisite herbs.
Like the other dishes it could have used salt and maybe crushed red pepper to liven it up a bit.
With such generous portions it was hard to think about main courses but they arrived quickly.
The yellowtail snapper, ($17.99) the restaurant’s signature dish, was fantastic. The fish was light and moist and served with the tail rakishly draped off the plate. It was accented with a lovely sauce of tomatoes, garlic and button mushrooms, with a slight hint of white wine. A bowl of al dente pasta was a competent accompaniment.
But the pasta that would bring me back was the spaghetti carbonara ($13.99), which my husband ordered. I don’t know how he always ends up ordering the best thing on the menu. But that is another story!
The perfectly al dente strands of dense pasta were coated with a rich sauce that brought to mind a perfectly poached egg with a vibrant flavor and color of the golden egg yolk enhanced by delicate strips of smoky pancetta and a good dose of black pepper.
We decided to skip dessert since the waiter fessed up that they were shipped in by a commercial producer. Nonetheless, coffees, espresso and American, were uniformly good on their own.
I’d go back to Café Italia in Fort Lauderdale if not for the spectacular food, then for the pleasant and personable service, moderate prices, the relaxed setting and a pasta that inspires cravings just thinking about it.
_ Critic Victoria Pesce Elliott
The Herald Dining Section