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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Caffé Italia's an Italian restaurant that doesn’t stick to the script

I was a bit reluctant when family members asked me to join them for Sunday dinner at Caffé Italia in Riverview. I’ve been watching my carb intake the past several months and didn’t want to blow my progress.

While I’ve managed to do well at home, it gets a bit tricky dining out and especially so when the glory of most Italian menus is pasta. And that’s a real temptation for me because there’s not much I enjoy more than a plate of lovely noodles and red sauce.

This was my first visit to Caffé Italia, 10277 Big Bend Road. The restaurant opened in February, and I had been putting off dining there out of respect to my waistline.

Former Laughing Cat Bistro owners Franco LoRe and Jerry Kistler significantly downsized – or “right-sized” – when they closed their popular 166-seat Ybor City eatery and opened Caffé Italia, which accommodates an intimate 33 diners.

Caffé Italia maintains a menu brimming with hearty Italian fare, gnocchi, lasagna, chicken parmesan and cheese tortellini.

Our server, Gregory, was quite friendly and helpful. I ordered the seafood au gratin appetizer and a mixed green salad. Made with scallops, shrimp, and mussels with a cheese topping, the casserole was surprisingly light and the seafood was nicely cooked.

Side salads, so often a tired shrug, here included crisp lettuce, chunks of tomatoes and cucumbers dressed with the restaurant’s deliciously seasoned, red wine vinaigrette. I ate every bit of it and could have licked the bowl.

My dining partners ordered eggplant parmigiana and sausage and mushroom ravioli.

Portions were more than generous.

The first came with a large mound of eggplant parmigiana. Its spaghetti side dish sported a zesty tomato sauce and mixed vegetables that pleasantly snapped. The thick, red sauce boasted a rich, authentic Italian flavor.

Half a dozen large ravioli were buried under a marinara sauce with tasty sausage and assorted mushrooms. Fresh, creamy ricotta cheese nicely balanced the sauce and al dente pasta that enveloped it.

The eatery is run a bit different than most other restaurants. So before rushing over there I thought you might benefit from also knowing the following two things.

Although diners may order pizza, including specialties like wild mushroom, Sicilian-style and stuffed – it can only be ordered to go.

And alcohol isn’t on the menu and won’t be. So if you enjoy wine with your Italian food – and who doesn’t – be sure to bring your favorite bottle with you. If you also bring along your own glassware, the restaurant waives its $10 corkage fee.

Our only other quibble…the restaurant is a tight space with lots of noise. It’s not a place for a first date, romantic anniversary dinner or quite conversation but it’s great for lively gatherings of family and friends. With pasta dishes and pizzas yet to be tasted, I look forward to dining here again.

Lynn Kessel is a freelance food columnist. For more of her recipes, visit southshore.tbo.com and enter the search words Lynn Kessel.

Seafood Au Gratin

4 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 1/2 cups whole milk

Salt and white pepper

3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 pint oysters (preferably Louisiana), with liquor

1 dozen medium-size shrimp, peeled and de-veined

1/2 pound crawfish tails

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a sauté pan over high heat, melt butter. Stir in flour and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Then whisk in milk, a little at a time, season with salt and pepper. Bring liquid to boil, and then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer liquid for 4 to 6 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup of the cheese.

In a bowl, combine the oysters, shrimp and crawfish and season with salt and pepper. Now stir in the milk mixture, season and mix thoroughly. Lightly grease a casserole dish. Spoon mixture into dish. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Place in oven and bake for about 10 to 12 minutes or until bubbly. Remove from oven and serve warm.

Source: Adapted from www.foodnetwork.com.

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