The best restaurants in South Florida are often to be found tucked into the corner of a grocery store.
I’m not talking about the hot food bar at Whole Foods, I’m talking about little hole-in-the-wall ethnic groceries. That’s not unusual throughout much of the rest of the world. Elsewhere most grocery stores offer a café of some kind and until the 1950s that was true in the U.S. as well. However, the advent of the supermarket chains did away with the grocery/café.
Psst! Lean in closer, I don’t want anyone else to hear this. I almost hate to tell you about Cucina Caruso. It’s managed to be a well-kept secret for decades and I really don’t want to share this hidden gem. I know that once word gets out, there’ll be a wait for the limited number of tables there are and the friendly staff will become over-worked and, well you know how it goes. So, let’s just keep this between us.
Cucina Caruso is an Italian deli/grocery store where you can pick up anything from a few meatballs or a pizza to a full meal to take home. There is also a nice variety of imported and domestic Italian food products. But the real reason folks come here is for the little café set up on one side of the store. Pulling into the non-descript strip-mall you’d have no inkling as to the culinary treasures to be found inside, and those treasures are only matched by the charming staff, who all exhibit a joy and pride that is infectious.
You can stop by during the day for a light pick me up, say an espresso and zeppole (Italian doughnuts), of a slice and a soda. But the regulars know that the best deal is to be had weekdays during lunch and Thursday nights. That’s when the staff puts forth a buffet of some of their favorite dishes. Head up to the deli counter, tell them what you want and they pile your plate high with favorites, which they then take back to the kitchen to heat up and then deliver to your table.
On the night of our visit you’d have thought there was a royalty convention in town; the place was packed with queens all enjoying antipasti such as Caprese, Greek and pasta salads, caponata, white beans, escarole, bruschetta and assorted vegetables, while being chatted up by the attractive and attentive staff. My hubby chose a slice of pizza as an appetizer and enjoyed it so much he had two more slices for dinner. The others in our party marveled over chicken Milanese as well as a variety of pasta options, traditional meatballs and a version made with ground chicken served in Marsala sauce, incredible 4-inch thick lasagna, as well as sausage and peppers and onions, eggplant Parmigiana and filet of sole. And, those are just the dishes we were able to sample; there were dozens of others that as tempted as we were, we just didn’t have room for. Desserts are not included, but are available at an additional charge. That’s not bad for $15.99 for dinner, $ 11.99 for lunch. If you’d prefer something a little less gut-busting, a full menu, from breakfast through dinner, is also offered. Wine, beer and soft drinks are also available.
Cucina Caruso Italian Market
4165 N Dixie Hwy., Oakland Park
While few feature the hospitality and variety available at Caruso’s, there are a number of other ethnic markets in the area that also feature café service.
4115 N Dixie Hwy., Oakland Park
Located in the same strip mall as Cucina Caruso, Tortilleria Mexicana may lack some of the charm and polish, but it dishes up good authentic Mexican fare, with tamales and tortillas made in house. Latin American pastries and groceries are also options. If you’re looking for décor, there’s a large number of options; from pictures of the various popes to mariachi hats and maracas.
Sasaya Japanese Market
1956 E. Sunrise, Fort Lauderdale
This tiny storefront offers a good selection of Japanese noodles, sauces and accompaniments as well as cooking utensils. The sushi bar in the back dishes up the freshest fish in town.
Fernanda’s International Market & Vintage Winery
3045 N. Federal, Fort Lauderdale
A nice selection of European groceries, a vast wine collection and great deli food, make this a must stop. One of the most polished and largest of the market/restaurants in town.
Greek Pastries & Deli
4701 N. Federal, Fort Lauderdale
This is more of a Greek deli than a grocery market, but there are a few Greek specialty items available and the staff is so friendly and the pastries so divine, that we’re including them anyway. It’s also some of the best Greek food in town and they have a small seating area. Only open for breakfast and lunch.