There was something poignant in the greeting from our server when my guests and I dined at Cafe Italiano recently. Cafe Italiano, of course, is the little Italian, um, cafe that has been serving from the same spot on Semoran Boulevard since 1965, which makes it one of the city’s oldest restaurants.
It looks its age (and I say that fully realizing that it is younger than I am). Let’s face it: Semoran Boulevard ain’t the prettiest stretch of road in town, especially the miles south of Colonial Drive. That said, a spruced up facade would really stand out among the other worn and even tawdry buildings around. That would do a lot to get people to at least notice the restaurant and stop and go inside.
Of course, then they’d expect to see some updating inside, too. Doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just a little gussying up to make it look as though it belongs in the 21st century.
The food is just fine, pretty darned good, even. My guests and I really liked the fried eggplant appetizer, four disks of firm vegetable with a light breading fried golden and served with a pulpy marinara for dipping. Delicious seasonings.
All four entrees I sampled were done just right, and we had a tough time trying to decide which onewas best. I really liked my veal Milanese, thin cutlets breaded and sauteed, seasoned just right and needing only a spritz of lemon juice to finish it. But the pescatore, a bowl of mussels and scallops and shrimp in a tomotoey broth with just the slightest tang to it, was also a winner.
Linguine with white clam sauce was simple but an abundance of flavor. And the lasagna had dense layers of meat, ricotta cheese and sauce that were just wonderful.
And most of the dinners come with a very serviceable salad, a side dish (I preferred the spaghetti over fries -- let’s just pretend that fries aren’t even an option) and crusty bread.
Oh, but back to what our server said when she greeted us at the beginning of the meal. First, she apologized for making us wait several minutes, which, to be honest, didn’t seem like it had been that long. And then she said that it was her first night of waiting tables. Ever. She told us that she was a regular customer at Cafe Italiano and once told the owner, James Lauro, that if he ever needed a server that she’d be glad to help out. It seems that no one from the regular serving staff showed up that evening, so Lauro called her and said he could use the help.
And she did just fine. Better, in fact, than a lot of people who have been waiting tables for years. But I worried about why an entire serving staff wouldn’t show up. And then I worried about whether the customers would continue to show up. On a Friday evening there were plenty of tables to choose among.
Restauranting is a tough game. And the dining public can be fickle, always looking for the next new thing. But in the end, you hope that good food will win the day. That has to account for at least part of the reason that Cafe Italiano has been around so long. Here’s to even longer.
Cafe Italiano is at 565 N. Semoran Blvd., Orlando. It is open for dinner daily. Entrees range from $8.49 to $17.50 with most in the low to mid teens; very reasonable. Cafe Italiano lists a website, but it doesn’t seem to be active. The phone number is 407-277-6840.