I promised myself not to make any "Goodfellas," "Sopranos" or "Godfather" jokes while writing my review of that Spenard old-timer, Fiori D'Italia. But oh, the temptation is strong. The restaurant has such an old-school, East Coast feel, such a dug-in, dark and clandestine atmosphere. It's out-of-the-way and timeless. In other words, it's the perfect spot to plan a hit.
Recently, I met a girlfriend there for dinner. Disappointingly, we were there to plan a spelling bee -- not a heist. Set in an unexpectedly residential area of Spenard, I had trouble finding it then laughed when I realized I had driven by it several times without actually seeing it. A rambling compound with a dark, windowless building attached to a large (and historic) Quonset hut, the exterior is not terribly promising. The parking lot could use tidying up, the electric sign is losing its glow, and the large cans set out for cigarette butts aren't terribly welcoming.
But that all changes when you walk in the door. We were greeted quickly and warmly and shown into a cozy booth. Growing up in New Jersey, a trip to a red-sauce Italian spot was a regular part of my family's routine. So I was a little overwhelmed by the sense of nostalgia that came over me when I sized up the room. Oversized wine bottles, a grandfather clock, copious amounts of faux foliage (fauxliage?) twine themselves up a structure of decorative lattice. It's eccentric, overstuffed, a little dated and, to me, completely charming.
Our waitress took our drink orders and was encyclopedic in her knowledge of the surprisingly elaborate specialty cocktail menu. The Fiori D'Italia bar is vastly different from the wicker-wrapped Chianti bottle offerings of my youth.
I peeked into the bar, and it's as well stocked as any I've seen in Alaska. Hundreds of bottles line the mirrored wall -- both familiar and unfamiliar. Two patrons who looked like regulars were discussing some rather obscure single-malt scotches. "Best selection in town," one told me. Readers, please don't tell my scotch-obsessed husband about this place. His family needs him.
Heather ordered the "bartender's special" ($10) -- a lively concoction of pineapple-infused vodka and fruit. It was light and refreshing and held the promise of summertime. The perfect drink for sipping on a veranda. Fiori D'Italia -- take note -- you need a veranda. Your cocktails demand it.
I ordered a flavored balsamic martini ($9) -- another specialty of the house. Fiori D'Italia is, by their own estimation, the only place in Alaska to get one. It's my new favorite drink. Perfectly straddling a line between sweet and bitter, it drinks like a more sophisticated cosmopolitan. There is definitely some serious mixology going on behind the restaurant's mirror-lined sunken bar. Does a complicated cocktail feel like the perfect match for a heavy plate of fettuccini Alfredo? I'm not so sure, but I've also been known to wear white after Labor Day.
The food menu's offerings are pretty traditional -- bar snack-type appetizers, pastas and meat-heavy entrees. Cream sauces are well represented and there are a lot of different ways to eat melted mozzarella cheese. We experimented with one, the mozzarella sticks ($8.95) that, according to the waitress, are house-made and "the best in town." On the one hand, they were perfect -- crispy and melty with a pleasingly rustic, chunky tomato sauce. On the other hand they were … mozzarella sticks.
Our waitress's knowledge of the menu was impressive. She could explain each item at length and had clearly eaten and enjoyed everything. We decided to share the Fettuccini alla Fiori ($19.95) and the "Bull Dog's Bisteca Alla Siciliana" ($26.95). At our waitress' suggestion we ordered a side dish of the kitchen's special grappa sauce ($2.95).
The pasta was a creamy affair with a reasonable quantity of shrimp and scallops. It was satisfying, if not remarkable. But the steak was the star of the meal. Cooked to a perfect medium-rare, it was topped with a beautiful, intensely garlicky tomato sauce with a bold presence of salty anchovy. The only disappointment was the overcooked side of penne pasta. It was handy, however, for dipping in the bowl of grappa sauce which came to the table slightly late because, as our waitress said, it was "being made fresh." It was worth the wait -- slightly sweet, slightly savory, it's a rich gravy-style sauce that I wish I could buy by the quart. It would make the perfect accompaniment for any kind of meat -- at Fiori D'Italia, it is offered with two kinds of steak and a veal dish.
I returned the following week with my family. My daughters were, unsurprisingly, enchanted with the "less is definitely NOT more" philosophy of the decor. My 9-year-old declared it to be "really fancy" and my 13-year-old decided it was "romantic." Romantically, we all shared the mozzarella loaf ($7.95), which is an entire loaf of bread stuffed with cheese. We loved it because, well, it's an entire loaf of bread stuffed with cheese.
My oldest daughter ordered the lasagna ($16.95), which I suggested because the waitress on our previous visit said it was her favorite (just like her mother used to make!). My other daughter ordered fettuccini Alfredo (no mushrooms, $15.95) and I ordered the Involtini Di Pollo Con Prosciutto Fromaggio ($19.95).
The lasagna is a rich, gooey, decadent plateful -- greasy, cheesy, sloppy and satisfying. The Alfredo was fine but not quite flavorful enough. It could have used more cheese -- it just tasted like cream. My chicken was great -- a crispy battered breast, rolled around a filling of prosciutto and cheese -- and covered in a velvety white sauce. I missed the promised flavor of sage; it was overwhelmed by the prosciutto and cheese, but I would order it again.
Fiori D'Italia is a unique little hideaway, a quiet little pocket of old-fashioned charm and vintage whimsy. With generous portions of hearty, Italian basics and a sophisticated mixologist behind the bar, it's the perfect place to hunker down against a cold winter night while listening to "That's Amore" over the sound system. You could meet up with friends and plan summertime adventures (or a school spelling bee). Or you could meet up with the "family" and plan something more sinister. I'm not judging. Especially after a balsamic martini or two.
Hours: 4 p.m.-12 a.m. Monday-Sunday
Location: 2502 McRae Road
Contact: fioriak.com and 907-243-9990
Alaska Dispatch Publishing