Jan Norris: Food and Florida

Food, Restaurants, Recipes and Pre-Disney Florida

Jan Norris: Food and Florida header image 1

Thumbs Up: Italian Oven Cafe, West Palm Beach

May 14th, 2009 · 7 Comments

If you’ve read me for any length of time, you know I have an aversion to restaurant chains. Homogenous, corporate food is not my idea of dining out.

So it was with reluctance I took the word of friends and checked out the Italian Oven Cafe in CityPlace. 

italian_oven_interiorTo say I’m pleasantly surprised is an understatement. So much about what I hate about fast-casual restaurants isn’t here.

Yes, it’s counter-service style — that’s the only indication that this isn’t a bistro-like sit-down.

The decor is modern and comfortable – in tans and crimson, with booths and tables and a counter, as well as outdoor seating.

After placing your order (there are seven selections each of salads, panini, pizzas and pastas – plus combos of some), you pick up flatware, and get your drink and then choose a seat to wait for your food to arrive.

Olives are gratis

Napkins and marinated olives with hot pepper flakes are on each table as a nibble — a nice touch.

I had a small chef’s salad ($4) — fresh and crisp with mixed greens, small tomatoes and a light Italian vinaigrette. Then, a combo ($8) of a small bowl of Italian wedding soup and half a Tuscan chicken panini. The soup was a light chicken broth with quite a few teeny meatballs and pearl couscous (it’s a pasta and works just fine in this). My panini was delicious — even after I let it get cold, talking with the chef. The ciabatta was crispy; and the chicken and tomatoes offset by the artichoke pesto. It could have used a tad more sauce, but they had me at the ciabatta.

Tomato tower is tops

Tomato stack salad

Heirloom tomato tower salad

The chef wanted me to try the heirloom tomato tower salad — thick slices of red, yellow and purple heirloom tomatoes she buys from Walter Ross’ farm in Lantana, sandwiched with fresh mozzarella slices and anchored by a slice of onion that had been caramelized in balsamic vinegar. The whole affair was dressed with a slightly thick fig-balsamic vinaigrette that was both sweet and pungent. Caper berries provided just the salty bite that it needed for balance, and a fat olive speared the basil leaf on top. A mound of red and green lettuces on the side were great for sopping up the remaining vinaigrette.

I’ve had this dish in numerous other restaurants at a much greater price  and much lower quality — this was $9 well spent.

A plate of lobster-shrimp ravioli with a creamy pink sauce was also quite good and at $12, a bargain entree.  I had a similar dish at a nearby restaurant for $18 — and the ravioli were neither handmade nor did they contain as much seafood.

Individual pizzas are $6 and other salads, panini and pastas range from $4 to $10.

Uncommon touches

The real bargain is in the quality. Susan Bellucci, chef-partner, explained that better ingredients make the difference, and she’s willing to shop for the best. “I get the tomatoes from Walter and buy imported Italian vinegars for my vinaigrettes. We don’t make the ciabatta here because I can buy great quality bread, so I’ll do that. But everything else is made in-house – I’m the one coming in early to do it.”

The flatware is good quality metal, dishes are china and stylish — and though they could save a great deal of money by going to plastics and foam, they prefer to be “green” and serve with reusable tableware.

In a nod to the techno-savvy, there’s a kiosk out front where diners can order for pick-up or to be served outside. “A lot of diners think it’s an ATM machine, but some use it,” Bellucci said. They also offer catering.

James Frye is owner of the company that has one other Italian Oven in Pittsburgh. Frye is pleased with the success of this one in CityPlace — even though its tucked-away location makes it somewhat tricky to find. “I’m looking at several other locations here,” he said. “Wellington, Boca, Palm Beach Gardens. We’ll see. We definitely are going to expand, though.”

Italian Oven Cafe

  • 477 S. Rosemary Ave. (CityPlace),  West Palm Beach
  • (561) 804-6624; web site: www.italianovencafe.net
  • Lunch and dinner daily.

(Photos provided by Italian Oven Cafe.)

Tags: Two Forks Up! Food Finds

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 cassie // May 29, 2009 at 11:59 am

    The Italian Oven (originally owned by Frye) used to be a huge chain here in Pittsburgh with dozens of locations in several states. Many of us still mourn the passing of our favorite chain. We have one in Greensburg that sits in what looks to be pristine condition from the road, but I believe closed nearly a decade ago. I ran into an ad for the new Italian Oven Cafe here in Pittsburgh, and was curious to see if it was the same place. It appears to be a hip, more upscale version of the original. For the record, we do still have 3 Italian Oven’s in Southwestern PA (independently owned I am assuming from the original franchise), the closest one to me is nearly an hour drive, but a couple times a year, it’s completely worth it…. although they sorely need an update and a fresh menu at this point. Thanks so much for your review, I am definitely looking forward to trying out the new Italian Oven Cafe in Pittsburgh, and Mr. Frye… please bring back Italian Oven to Greensburg!

  • 2 Jan Norris // May 29, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    You’re right: They’re independently owned up there.

  • 3 WPB lunch person // Oct 7, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    Just walked by the Italian Oven here in WPB. Closed. Doors painted over and outdoor chairs and tables gone.
    Wonder what happened.?
    I ate there about two weeks ago and it was packed.

    It was a nice place. Hope its not gone forever.

  • 4 Cafe World // Nov 22, 2009 at 6:51 am

    Jan, I so agree with you in having an aversion to restaurant chains. Seems like it`s all about money (well, what isn`t today, right? 🙂 and the atmosphere just isn`t there. Everytime I enter any restaurant chain, I feel like a piece of meat, not like a customer.

    I love family restaurants/coffees, it makes a big difference in the food and serving.

  • 5 Massimo Italian Restaurants Glasgow // May 2, 2010 at 4:48 am

    Alot of thriving restaurants over in the UK are independent. Passionate in what they do and it shows. We’ve seen chains of restaurants being divided up by the administrators and savvy independents buy up the lease and property because of the location and make a success out of them.

  • 6 sara k blanco - san antonio wedding photography // Sep 12, 2010 at 8:40 am

    I love family restaurants/coffees, it makes a big difference in the food and serving.

  • 7 Terry@wedding photography pittsburgh // Sep 13, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    The picture of the cafe looks homey. I like the lights of the cafe. The Heirloom tomato tower salad looks so mouth watery. I would like to try this salad.

Leave a Comment