I'm singing the praises of this little family-run joint in Lutz on S.R. 54 between Collier and Wesley Chapel Blvd. It's owned by Rhode Island transplants Carl and Jessica. Just opened this past spring, this is unabashedly New England Italian-American family fare as served by their grandmothers and mothers. nothing like the recently closed D'Alessio. Food there was pure Italy, with genuine Italians from Italy running the kitchen. Food was excellent there, the atmosphere was upscale, but the service was a nightmare that never ended.
Not so at Little Italy's. Located in a nondescript strip mall, decor is minimal and the focus is entirely on the food. Since opening this spring, they've slowly gained a loyal local following, to the point that the dozen tables are often full between 7-7:30. . Grinders, Sicilian pizzas and giant deep brown crusty calzones fly out the door. All made by hand, in house, to order.
Carl does the cooking, while Jessica runs the front and handles sous chef duties, making all the salad dressings and the balsamic reduction used in the Caprese salad.
Standouts from Jessica are that Caprese salad and the Italian dressing used on the Antipasto salad. The reduction is sweet and smooth, making a nice counterpoint for the fresh tomato and basil. The Italian vinaigrette is bright with lemon and pureed sweet red and orange peppers. It works beautifully with the Antipasto's bold flavors. She also makes the cannoli, filling them table side with a lovely cinnamon cream. Delicious.
Common to New England, Carl's focus is red sauce. He has two of them, a bright simple tomato sauce and a Bolognese that suffers a bit from an overabundance of cream (it's pink), which really flattens out the rich meaty sauce. Stick to the tomato sauce.
The only oil- or cream-based sauce on the menu is the Alfredo, which is a pity, because Carl does them so well. His Carbonara sauce (not on the menu, but if they're not busy and you ask nicely, he'll make most anything) is lovely. Silky smooth and rich without being at all cloying or heavy, thanks to his classical preparation, without an ounce of cream. He made it for my birthday this week and I almost ate the whole plateful, it was that good. It belongs on the menu, but with a small kitchen and cooking everything to order, he's got to go with what's more popular.
Everything is made fresh in house, except the ravioli. They absolutely do not rely on a freezer. One night we were told we couldn't have the antipasto salad because they'd run out of fresh lettuce and the bagged stuff they'd bought as back-up wasn't good enough. These people care about their food and make a real effort to take care of their customers.