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An excellent restaurant—as far as I am concerned—is unassuming, intimate, with both a menu and hosts that surprise and delight. Café Italia, which has been operating for 17 years, fits and exceeds my prerequisites.

Café Italia’s owner, the charming Francesco, came to sit with us soon after our waiter Kenny opened a bottle of crisp Pinot Grigio. My roommate Will and I asked what he recommended from the menu. His response was direct.

“If it’s not good, why would I put it on my menu?” Francesco queried in a rich Italian accent that originates in the Abruzia region.

For our second course my roommate was very right in choosing to share the risotto allo scoglio, a seafood risotto made with clams, shrimp and mussels. Firstly, the kitchen kindly split our portion in two, yet the plates were so filled with rice and shellfish we thought the kitchen made a mistake. Secondly, the top layer of rice had not yet cooled off, so none of the “mushiness” that can ruin a risotto marred the evening.

Thirdly, I am used to risottos being done in the northern way, with butter and cream, which makes for an elegant but heavy risotto. At Café Italia, however, I learned the secret to the dish being so light and airy—Francesco uses only olive oil and perhaps stock. The dish was seasoned simply so that the seafood really took center stage.

For our third course I went for the ossa bucco and Will went for the Chilean sea bass. Osso bucco is another classic Italian dish that—according to Francesco—is often lost in American kitchens claiming to serve authentic Italian food. Normally served in a heavy tomato sauce, the osso bucco came prepared in a light tomato sauce, with carrots, celery, and onions in red wine.

When our plates arrived we both smiled. When we bit into our veal and sea bass we had the same reaction—our eyes closed. Will’s fish was simply simmered in extra-virgin olive oil, with onions, diced tomatoes, and basil leaves. The fish was not so overcooked that it flaked away into the broth, yet it was still firm.

For dessert our elegant waitress Christina, a Peruvian Penelope Cruz, recommended two very light desserts. I opted for the lemon sorbetto, served in a champagne flute, with frozen whipped cream that rendered it a parfait of sorts.

Will opted for a beautifully presented marscapone cheese, chocolate, and almond dessert that can only be described as a “marscapone mousse.” We capped off the meal with an espresso each—both of us forgot to order a sambuca to round things off, but after the bottle of wine we really didn’t need it.

As we ate dinner we kept wondering how the kitchen could so easily serve the dishes so perfectly. Christina revealed how this feat is pulled off. “It’s only Francesco and his wife in the kitchen. Everything,” she said with a warm smile, “is made to order.”

Cafe Italia Restaurant
3471 North Federal Highway
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33309
(954) 561-3900