Caffe Italia: A Good Bet on the Bay
189 Brooks Street, Fort Walton Beach, 664-0035
Hours: Open daily @ 5 p.m.
By Bruce Collier
Caffe Italia has been in the same Fort Walton Beach location for years, in a former residence fronting the bay. Several hurricanes and unnamed tropical storms have failed to dislodge the place. Diners can still eat inside, or on one of several patio levels outside. The night we ate there was the evening of a rainy day, so the outdoor area was covered. This may change in better weather. We ate inside.
The interior tables are comfortable, nicely spaced on a polished wood floor. The decor is cluttered or homey, depending on your viewpoint, or “eclectic” if you’re diplomatic by nature. The walls are covered with family photos, prints, flags, maps, and assorted nostalgic what nots. We arrived shortly after the restaurant had opened. We were the only diners for about an hour, when several other tables were filled.
Our server was cheerful, informative, and a good listener. When my friend asked if a pasta dish could be prepared without green peppers, she countered that it could even be prepared with different pasta, if my friend preferred. She was likewise accommodating on wine, bringing out two samples so we could make an informed choice. The result was that we ordered one of the higher-priced bottles on the menu — $29 — a coup of initiative and salesmanship for her. As the sole customers, we could easily have been rushed, but our server paid attention when we said we weren’t in a hurry.
We ordered appetizers. I hadn’t eaten fried calamari for a while, so that was my choice. My friend ordered the house antipasto. Other starters include soup of the day, bruschetta, mussels and shrimp in a wine and tomato broth, carpaccio, escargot with mushrooms, fresh mozzarella with tomatoes and basil, and salads.
The calamari was lightly breaded and crisp fried, served hot with a few sticks of fried zucchini and a dipping sauce that hovered between marinara and pomodoro. It’s a generous portion, easily shared. The same can be said for antipasto, a plate of prosciutto and other cold cuts, wedges of cheese, sliced Roma tomato, and olives. There’s a small salad in the middle, a sushi bar seaweed affair, with a sesame oil and vinegar dressing. It was good, though something of a foreigner on the plate. When my friend praised the tomato’s quality, the server brought her another one. I wish I’d thought to try that with the squid.
My friend ordered a Bolognese-style pasta, with penne — the menu original is pappardelle — sweet red (no green) peppers, mushrooms, dried tomatoes, cheese, and Italian sausage. I ordered the fish of the day, whole snapper baked with olive oil and herbs.
The pasta came piled in a wide bowl, with plenty of everything, though my friend accepted the server’s offer of additional grated cheese. Penne pasta is more fork-friendly than other kinds, and the sausage was sliced in discs, so a hungry diner could eat all with dispatch. My snapper came looking up at me, a large, rosy fish, with plenty to offer on both sides of the backbone. Eating fish this way takes patience and time, and you have to pull the occasional tiny bone from your mouth, but the simple seasoning of herbs and oil was all it needed. Any dish billed as “fish of the day” should be the star of its own show.
Other main course items include assorted pastas with chicken, meat, shrimp, or cheese, a beef, veal and pork lasagna, ravioli — cheese or lobster — pizzas with about 20 choices of toppings, and house specialties such as veal piccata, salmon, and chicken marsala. There are daily specials.
Caffe Italia’s featured dessert is tiramisu. Other choices vary nightly. On our night, it was a berry tart. We got one of each.
Tiramisu was the A-list dessert of the 1990s. You could get it everywhere, except maybe Burger King. Overexposure worked its dark magic. The abused sweet was often buried in fake whipped topping, studded with chopped nuts and white chocolate chips, or laced with noxious liqueurs. Caffe Italia sticks to the basics — ladyfingers, coffee, mascarpone, and a dusting of cocoa powder. It’s barely sweet, and, like the name says, it picks you up. The tart featured lightly glazed strawberries and blueberries on pastry cream, in a flaky shell. Neither dessert had, nor needed, whipped topping.
The Beachcomber reviewed Caffe Italia some years ago, and gave it four apples. A recent correspondent took issue with that rating. Our return visit was to see whether food, service, or atmosphere had fallen off. I have no reason to alter my former rating, except to add another apple for service. However, one should always be reminded that my experience is that of one visit on one day and my rating reflects that. No dining reviewer can guarantee each diner will have the same experience.