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Cafe' Italia

August 31, 2008

By OMNI VORE

Café Italia, a North Hagerstown institution at the intersection of Burhans Road and Pennsylvania Avenue, is an Italian family restaurant with emphasis on family.

What I like best about Café Italia is that it is a friendly place where you can be at ease with friends. I am always curious about my fellow diners. Glancing around the restaurant at different times, I have seen families, singles, couples, teens, sports groups, prom dates, groups of red-hatted women and weary travelers passing through.

I gave this restaurant a thorough testing for this review; I went back repeatedly. On my first visit, a Friday night, I ordered pizza, an Italian staple.

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The interior of the restaurant is dominated by very clean, very big, square windows. On the walls are prints of pasta and of wines, advertising these staples with the Italian artistic flair. Icicle lights hang from the eaves outside. Tiffany-style lamps gave light. A painted-tile scene of the harbor near Naples graced the open kitchen.

While we were there, owner Tony Scotto watched everything from the kitchen. He was quick to smile and wave. From the kitchen came the sound of laughter and opera music. This joy and music made the food taste better.

I watched as the pizza at the pizza was made and popped into the oven. As soon as it was ready, our waitress brought it to the table. She took jars of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, red pepper, oregano and garlic from her apron pocket, smiled and left us to our pleasure.

This pizza was cooked to perfection. The crust was thin, browned and tasty. The sauce was just right, ripe with tomatoes and fragrant with herbs.

On Saturday, I met friends at the restaurant for lunch. I ordered the large, hot, steak-and-cheese sub with the works. What a bargain! For $7 I got outstanding bread, lots of steak, melted cheese, mushrooms, green pepper, onions, mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato. Half of the sub was my meal and the rest I took home for a late-night snack.

On Sunday night, my husband and I went to Café Italia for dinner. We ordered the specials: rigatoni alla Napoletana and chicken alla Romana. Each was $13.95 and came with salad or a soup. We chose soups -- chili and pasta y fagioli.

Our waitress brought hot bread, covered with a napkin and served with lots of butter. After a bite of bread, a sip of water, we remembered restaurants in Italy, where the basics of fresh bread and water were the introduction to every restaurant meal.

Then the soup was served. My spouse waxed enthusiastic over his chili. "This is tasty, spicy, not overwhelming. Excellent. It has coarse-ground, chewy meat; beans perfectly cooked. Tender. Excellent." High praise from a man with exceptionally high standards for food.

My pasta y fagioli was a contrast. Pasta y fagioli is a soothing soup of pasta, white beans, onions, celery, and a vegetable broth. Café Italia's was a delicate and classic Italian soup.

Our waitress was very attentive. As she cleared away the soup course, she brought what Italians call the secundi, the second course. My husband's meal, rigatoni alla Napoletana, was served in a huge white bowl. The dish contained five huge shrimp, slices of zucchini, and rigatoni pasta in a wine-cream sauce. My husband tasted and then proclaimed, "Perfect."

"Perfect?" I have never heard this word in his food-related vocabulary.

He nodded. "Perfect zucchini. Perfect shrimp. Perfect pasta. Perfect sauce."

"So you like it?"

"Not enough protein," he admitted, but that was it. He quickly finished his meal.

My Chicken alla Romana was served in a red, yellow, blue and green rimmed bowl. The food -- beautiful in its colorful setting -- was a cluster of shapes: diamond-shaped scallopinis of chicken breast; squares of ham; rectangles of fettucine; bars of red peppers; dots of capers.

My meal had enough protein. However, there was a broth that seemed superfluous to me. Aside from the liquid, this meal was a delight to the senses. It smelled good, tasted good, looked good. And the colors of the dish were the colors of Italy -- red, white and green. The chicken came with a side dish of fettucine with tangy red sauce.

"How about some dessert?" our waitress suggested. "Cannoli, cheesecake, tiramisu."

Sadly, we passed.

But we're already looking forward to our next meal at Café Italia. All are welcome to the hearth. I could go there every day of the week.

Café Italia

5 (out of 5)

Food: 5 stars

Service: 5 stars

Ambiance: 5 stars

Overall: 5 stars

Address: 935 Pennsylvania Avenue, Hagerstown, Hagerstown.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday to Saturday; and 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.

More: Dine in or carry out; beer and wine available.

Phone: 240-420-6677

Style: Family-style Italian

Range: Pizza costs $9.50 to $17.99, pasta dinners costs $8.25 to $13.50; dinners cost $12.50 to $13.95; salads cost $2.99 to $7.99; subs cost $5 to $7.

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