If you're in an Italian restaurant that plays the theme music from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" -- without a hint of irony -- you're in a seriously old-school Italian restaurant. And if anything defines Café Italiano, it's "old school." Just a few red-checked tablecloths short of a cliché, the family-run Café has been in business on State Road 436 since 1965. In that time, the area has turned from residential thoroughfare to a blighted scar of fast food joints, strip clubs and used car lots. But such neighborhood disrepair has done little to persuade the owners -- or patrons -- of Café Italiano to move on to tonier climes.
Why not? The answer is simple: When you're being served food this dependably good, you don't care if the restaurant shares a building with a neon-lit nail salon. Rather than coasting on the reputation that four decades of business should allow them, the family owners are clearly maintaining close vigilance over the quality of their food. On the night we were there, a manager alternated between greeting guests at the front door, checking on the kitchen staff and visiting tables to ensure everything was as it should be. Our server was incredibly polite and helpful, always there when we needed her, never there when we didn't.
On said server's suggestion, we tried the chicken Florentine and the eggplant parmigiana ($9.25), which, according to her, were among the best dishes on the menu. As eggplant dishes can easily devolve into nondescript nastiness, I figured it would be a good test for the kitchen. The kitchen easily passed: Even wrapped in a solid coating of breading, the fried eggplant maintained its individual texture, and its flavor was enhanced -- but not overpowered -- by the mozzarella and marinara it was bathed in. The chicken Florentine ($12.75) fared almost as well -- the spinach and cheese was stuffed perhaps a little too generously into the perfectly cooked chicken breast and the cheese on top was a little quick to congeal into a gooey mess, but overall the dish was excellent.
The side dishes and desserts were equally impressive. Calamari ($5.75) was served out-of-the-fryer hot, with a delicious herb-drenched breading that didn't fall prey to the blandness problem that plagues most calamari coverings. A side order of spaghetti ($3.50) and a surprisingly rich cheese ravioli entrée ($9) kept the kids sated, while respectable cannoli ($3.75) and spumoni ($3) made them quite happy. The six-layer tiramisu ($4.25) made the adults smile; as with the calamari, the kitchen is unafraid to make it powerfully flavorful, with a healthy dose of espresso giving it a bite all too often missing from the dessert.
Despite a cavernous interior that's a little run-down and a less-than-desirable location, there's no reason to think that anything less than an exceptional dining experience awaits you at Café Italiano. The years of tradition and a devoted clientele demand that the place uphold some fairly high standards. It may not be the hippest restaurant you ever eat at, but with such thoughtful preparation and a staff this attentive and friendly, odds are this place will still be standing well after that chic, overpriced bistro your friends were all excited about is nothing but a foggy punch line.