A friend whose culinary opinion I trust had raved about the cuisine at Fiori D'Italia -- terrific food in a peculiar location was the claim. I pride myself on knowing pasta, but up until a few months ago, I'd never heard of the place.
Owner Ulber Ferati said that's no accident. Tucked away in a residential area of Spenard, Ferati said he relies on word of mouth -- not advertising or a prominent location -- to attract customers.
With some help from Google Maps, I was able to pinpoint the restaurant's location: just off Spenard, about a quarter mile up McRae Road. I enlisted my husband and father-in-law to assist as taste-testers, and off we went.
Finding the restaurant was really no problem. Once you know where you're going, you can't miss the two-story structure with the attached Quonset hut. The hut used to house the Garden of Eatin', and Ferati said that it dates back to early statehood.
He still uses the hut for parties of 40 or fewer guests; the second-floor banquet room holds up to 150.
The restaurant's dimly lit interior is eclectically decorated. An antique phone booth, Asian-style vases, baseball trophies, mirrors and greenery -- it all sounds ostentatious but somehow works. Even the plastic tablecloths didn't detract from the upscale atmosphere.
My only complaint stemmed from the discovery that our seat wasn't bolted to the booth. With face-planting in a plate of hot pasta a distinct possibility, I resolved to keep my shoulders glued to the back of the seat for the duration of our meal.
An attentive waitress (who I later learned was Ferati's wife, Urime) took our orders. I had heard raves about the mozzarella loaf (Italian bread smothered with cheese, $7.95), so we decided on that as our appetizer.
In addition to traditional offerings like pollo alla parmigiana (chicken parmesan, $17.95), calzone ($14.95) and spaghetti with meatballs ($14.95), Fiori's menu boasts unique dishes like pollo alla Calabria (sauted chicken breast with oregano, basil, anchovies, garlic, capers and tomatoes in a red wine sauce, $19.95) and melanzane rollatini (pan-fried eggplant stuffed with ricotta cheese and prosciutto and topped with mozzarella and marinara, $18.95).
My husband and his father, both traditionalists, respectively ordered the pollo alla fettuccini (chicken fettuccini, $18.95) and fettuccini carbonara ($17.95). In the mood for something a little different, I opted for the spaghetti alla Siciliana -- pasta with eggplant, fresh tomatoes, garlic, green peppers, basil, capers, anchovies and black olives ($15.95). All our meals came with a simple salad of romaine lettuce and tomato.
The mozzarella loaf didn't knock my socks off, but it was satisfying -- crunchy, buttery bread, a hint of garlic and plenty of gooey cheese. The accompanying marinara sauce was some of the best I had ever tasted. The sweet acidity of tomato mingled perfectly with the rich olive oil, savory garlic and earthy herbal flavors.
Just as we were finishing the bread, our entrees arrived. We rearranged water glasses and stacked salad plates to make room for the heaping plates of pasta. Those with hearty appetites will not be disappointed: One pasta entree would have easily fed the three of us.
I sneaked a forkful of my husband's pasta and decided he ordered wisely. I'm generally not a fan of alfredo sauce -- it usually tastes like heavy cream mixed with cornstarch and a little pepper -- but this was fresh and creamy, perfectly covering each strand of pasta without being too thick or gluey.
The sweetness of the ham and brininess of the olives provided the perfect accompaniment. My father-in-law's fettuccini was topped with the same delicious sauce. Though the white-meat chicken was tender, the dish lacked the unique balance of flavors that made my husband's carbonara so appealing.
While I think the carbonara took top honors that night, I was not disappointed with my spaghetti. Eggplant often suffers the fate of being tough and bitter, but the eggplant atop my pasta was cooked to a smooth, buttery richness.
Pungent olives, astringent capers and the deep-sea flavor of anchovies cut through the sweetness of the tomato, lending the dish a brightness and complexity.
Though Fiori D'Italia is closed for August, I'll definitely be making a return trip this fall. Excellent service, delectable flavors and dishes to suit every taste (not to mention a full bar) await those willing to seek out this hidden Spenard-area gem.
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Location: 2502 McRae Road
Hours: 4 p.m.- midnight, Monday-Sunday
Note: Closed for August.
Options: Dine-in, takeout, delivery, catering
By Carly Horton Stuart
Daily News correspondent