Four words of advice if you go to Caffé Europa: Save room for dessert.
They're that good. The gelatos are creamy, the chocolate mousse velvety, and the ricotta cheesecake is perfection. I'd like to work my way down the whole list and try every single one — the baba al rum, the torta della nonna, even the coconut cream bomb (and I hate coconut).
They're all there, sitting in a display case by the door of this Las Olas stalwart, and they'll have you drooling before you sink your teeth into your prosciutto, pasta or pizza. And those ain't bad. In fact, most of the food here is very good.
But in a landscape awash with Italian restaurants, what puts this trattoria over the top are the endings. Many are made in house (including both types of cheesecake). The gelato is made locally, especially for the restaurant. You're not supposed to start with dessert, my mother always said, but I had to start this review with dessert.
And in a way, that's how Caffé Europa began 26 years ago. Its first incarnation, a few blocks west on Las Olas near the Riverside Hotel, was as a café/pastry shop and light bite spot featuring paninis and pizza. Then owner Tony Cupelli relocated in 2010, its new room boasting a handsome wine bar. I didn't even realize it had sprouted into a full-on restaurant, dinners and all, until a friend recently recommended it.
Now that trendy Louie Bossi's is just down the block, some newcomers who don't want to deal with long waits there are spilling over, joining old loyalists. On a recent Tuesday night, every seat in Caffé Europa was full.
And I could see why. Yes, it has Las Olas prices but it also has attentive service and simple, quality fresh ingredients. "We're more old school," said Lisa Checo, general manager and Cupelli's daughter. "We want to make everyone feel like family."
Family is a big part of the fabric here. Checo said her father, born in Calabria, has backed off day-to-day operations, although he still oversees the kitchen and its recipes. Checo said she, her sister Rosanna Giordano and her brother Anthony Jr. want to keep the business thriving. It looks like they are succeeding.
We arrived just before the rush, but were told we couldn't be seated until all in our party arrived. That was fine — more time to ogle those desserts and grab a glass of wine. Our first table near the back hallway wasn't fine. My cohort said his chair kept getting kicked by passersby.
No problem. We were moved to a back corner near the open kitchen. There's a comfortable, unstuffy vibe here: granite tabletops and no tablecloths, walls adorned with mirrors, dark wood trim and Italian-themed prints and photos. Things were a little cramped at capacity (it felt like a neighboring table-for-two was on top of me) but the sound level never got overbearing. This is a place where you converse, not shout. There's also outdoor seating on a small front patio.
You can tell a lot about a restaurant by its bread basket, and Caffé Europa's is warm and wonderful — crusty Italian and soft doughy house-made focaccia. No butter. Pour yourself some olive oil and dip. And save some for dunking.
Dunk target number one: the briny broth of Vongole Marechiara ($14), steamed middle neck clams in white wine, garlic and a tinge of tomato sauce. You won't want to waste a drop of this appetizer.
We also tried the Beef Carpaccio ($14), razor thin slices of raw tenderloin topped with capers, arugula, shaved Parmesan Reggiano and garnished with a lemon. Simple, solid, delicious.
Two appetizer specials were indeed special. Zucchini Flowers ($17) will have you ditching your New Year's resolution swearing off fried food – these are light, crunchy, grease-free and highly addictive. Grab by the stem and dip in the accompanying San Marzano sauce.
Grilled Octopus ($21) arrived big and brutish, large meaty tentacles atop a mound of delicate greens. It's cooked perfectly, not chewy, suffused with smoke and lemon. Bravo.
Clean utensils arrived and wine was poured by the old pros working the floor before the main courses arrived. There's no shortage of choice here: 12 kinds of pizza, 17 kinds of pasta (with whole wheat or gluten-free options), and traditional preparations of veal ($26), chicken ($22) and fish ($28).
Plating was a bit unrefined — everything is heaped on plain white plates and bowls — but that's OK, I'm a substance over style guy. Eggplant parmigiana ($18) was velvety, stacked thin seedless strips covered in cheese and baked golden, served with a side of penne.
Bucatini Amatriciana ($20) could have used a little more kick, but the pancetta, onions, plum tomato sauce and thick pasta (basically spaghetti with a hole in the center) made for a comforting winter dish.
I had some philosophical differences with two fish entrees: the Salmon Europa ($28) and the Branzino special ($36). I believe fresh fish should be served simply and allowed to shine, but here both were covered and smothered in the same red-tinged garlic and white wine sauce topped with hunks of artichokes, olives and halved grape tomatoes. The salmon was hearty enough to stand up to the heavy treatment, but it was a mismatch with the thin, delicate branzino. A crispy, creamy polenta wedge on the side partly atoned.
All was forgiven with the Gnocchi Porcini special ($26). I'm not usually a gnocchi fan, but these were outstanding: Pillowy puffs of housemade ricotta-and-flour dumplings filled with porcini mushrooms, gently sautéed with butter and sage.
I could have eaten a truckload. But I had to save room for dessert.
910 East Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Hours: 9 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, open until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Wine and beer only
Sound level: Moderate
Outdoor smoking: Limited to one side of patio.
For kids: Highchairs.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Parking: Meters on street, nearby lots