It started as just a random dinner out with friends, and ended as one of the best meals of my life. And it all happened in the unlikeliest of places.
When MJ and I were invited to Little Italy in the tiny town of Inverness, Florida, I didn't give a second thought to what the night would hold. Inverness, you see, is fried catfish and cheese grits country; the kind of town where no one is a stranger and fine dining is something out of the Lady & Sons cookbook. I assumed that Little Italy was the local equivalent of Olive Garden and brought along the appropriate lack of expectations. Boy was I wrong.
My first miscalculation about Little Italy was that it was a restaurant in the first place. By day brothers Alfredo and Rosario run the space as a deli, serving up what I can only assume are the most authentic cured Italian meats and cheeses to be found in a 50-mile radius. But on Friday and Saturday nights, they welcome four parties into their deli for a seven course pre-fixe dinner.
Although I had never been to Little Italy - or downtown Inverness for that matter - I recognized the restaurant right off because it bore a striking resemblance to Satriale's, Tony Soprano's source for fresh gabagool. We were greeted at the door by Alfredo, who welcomed each of the ladies with kisses to the cheeks and a wealth of compliments. Naturally, they swooned.
The inside of Little Italy was pretty much what you'd expect from a deli turned restaurant. A long glass counter with various meats, cheeses, and sweet Italian delicacies lined one side of the room, with a chalkboard menu above listing all of the house specialties. In the center of the room were four white linen covered tables, surrounded by a decor that at first seemed a little kitschy until we later learned that nearly everything in the restaurant had a story. Of course, it all fit perfectly with the personality of our host, who, after all, had greeted us by insisting that we make love after the meal to help burn off the calories.
While Rosario worked his magic in the kitchen, Alfredo explained what lay ahead in our seven course extravaganza. Words like truffle, Gorgonzola, and carpaccio were tossed around on the regular, sometimes in the same sentence, and with each description I could feel the smile on my face getting broader. Alfredo could sense my excitement too, and recanted that we wouldn't need to wait to get home to make love; the meal, he promised, would be just as exhilarating.
First out was the Ahi Tuna Carpaccio with capers and a tiny cake of lentils and egg. After presenting the dish "with love," Alfredo went on to explain that there is simply no other way to eat ahi tuna than raw, and he hoped we wouldn't mind the presentation. I certainly wasn't going to argue...
Next up was the eggplant paired with artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and a roasted pepper that Alfredo instructed us to eat first to set the palate. None of the above are something I would order in a restaurant on my own, and afterwards I couldn't help but wonder why.
The much anticipated combination of Gorgonzola and truffles were next, with pasta that was filled with fresh pears. Truffles and Gorgonzola are always a good idea, but putting the two together was ecstasy for the tastebuds.
When the next dish hit the table I paused to study it for a moment while the rest of the group was deep in conversation. There was beautiful house made pasta, artichokes, bread crumbs, and a bit of seasoning, but no sauce. Just pure ingredients that all spoke for themselves. Alfredo noticed the attention I was giving the dish and during my first bite leaned in to whisper from behind...
I gave a slight nod and he asked if I had been to Sicily. Seeing I was mid-bite, I shook my head no and he replied...
You have now.
It was in that moment that I discovered the real beauty behind Little Italy. This wasn't a restaurant, it was both a home and a journey. Alfredo and Rosario had invited us along on a tour of their homeland, and in true Italian form they were building that connection in the most effective way possible: food. Before I could get too melodramatic, however, the evening took an odd, yet hilarious turn.
|The slightly altered bathroom artwork.|
Soon the lights were dimmed and the two emerged from the kitchen singing a few Italian classics, all the while ragging on each other like brothers do. It was all in good fun and after a few songs they retired to the kitchen, presumably to collect our main courses. Just then, they burst through the front door dressed as a bride and groom - Alfredo in a dress and veil - and proceeded to serenade a couple that was celebrating their anniversary. It was cheesy, over the top, and awesome, but most of all, no surprise whatsoever coming from our hosts.
By now most of the restaurant had forgotten we still had a main course and dessert to go. It was tough mustering the courage to start eating again, but there was no way I was letting a beautiful piece of cod served atop hand smashed tomatoes go to waste. Of course, the potent combination of lingering laughter from the show and wine made me forget to take a picture, so you'll just have to take my word for it. I did manage, however, to pull things together in time for dessert.
After a good ribbing from Alfredo for drinking iced coffee instead of espresso, we said our farewells for the evening. There were many more kisses and complements for the ladies, and yes even a reminder of his instructions for once we returned home. And yet, in a way it felt as if I was saying goodbye to my grandfather after Thanksgiving dinner.
Stepping outside into the damp Central Florida air, reality smacked me square in the face. Despite everything the last four hours had been to the contrary, I was still in Inverness, of all places. I glanced back at Little Italy one last time and couldn't help but shake my head. Inside, there were no Picasso's on the walls, or awards from the Michelin Guide behind the counter. Just the heart and soul of two brothers from Italy - probably the only ones in town - and a dining experience that ranked among the best of my life.
Enjoy Your Stay