So, how can one of my favorite local restaurants get even better when the husband-and-wife chefs who opened it — and still own it — hire a new chef?
That’s what has happened recently to my friends Jessica and Carl Meyers of Little Italy’s Family Restaurant & Catering on S.R. 54 in Lutz, less than two miles west of the Tampa Premium Outlets. Jessica and Carl have brought in an authentic Italian chef, born and raised in Napoli (not Naples, FL), who has honed his skills in not only his native country, but also in Germany, Australia, England, Tampa and, most recently, his own place, which was called Manzoni’s, even though neither the chef’s first nor last name is Manzoni.
“Manzoni is-a the street-a I grew up on in-a Napoli,” says Chef Simeone (pronounced “Sih-me-oh-nay”) Chiacchio, who opened Manzoni’s in Tarpon Springs a few years ago, after working at some of the better Italian restaurants in South Tampa. “Manzoni’s was-a the first-a time I ever owned a restaurant, and I found out that I’d-a rather cook for-a someone else and not-a have-a to be the boss.”
That worked out perfectly for Jessica and Carl, who brought in Chef Sam (“or Simon,” says Simeone. “Sam is just-a little easier for-a some people.”) a little over a month ago and have enjoyed not only his “autentico” Neapolitan cuisine, but also his accent, his sense of humor and his ability to multi-task.
“I told him you’re like an octopus,” says Jessica. “Carl and I really admire his skills. He can cook anything and he’s already adding amazing new specials and slowly making changes to our existing menu. We’ll be rolling out our new menu soon.”
Carl, who has been to Italy many times, says he can tell Chef Simeone is authentic because, “he doesn’t let anything go to waste. He cuts up the leftover penne and spaghetti for his pasta fagioli (one of his new specials) and he saves all of the scraps of cut produce, like onions, garlic and more and makes stock to keep his chicken dishes moist.”
Carl also mentioned something I forgot to write down about the beans used in Chef Sam’s pasta fagioli, but all I can tell you is that it is the best I’ve had in the Tampa Bay area. A bowl of it is so big and hearty, it’s a meal unto itself, but don’t get too full to try Sam’s outstanding faggotini pasta, which may not have an appetizing name, but it’s a flavor I’ve never tasted in Italian food before. Faggotini is a pasta “purse,” stuffed with pecorino Romano cheese and pear. Each bite of these filling purses has just a hint of sweetness from the pear, a perfect complement to the salty cheese. But, these faggotini are lightly covered with just the right amount of a creamy, but still light, pink tomato sauce that expertly finishes off this unique pasta dish.
“Just-a don’t-a call it a ‘vodka sauce,’” Sam says. “There’s-a no vodka in it.”
New Entrée Specials, Too!
As soon as I saw the new specials board (both the pasta fagioli and faggotini are on it), I got really excited about what Sam’s bringing to the table (pun intended) at Little Italy’s, especially once Jessica and Carl also showed me Sam’s super-extensive menu from Manzoni’s.
Of the new entrées already sampled by yours truly, my surprise favorite was the chicken Vesuvio, which Sam can make for you with the chicken lightly breaded or unbreaded. The chicken surrounds ample, tender slices of eggplant and topped with fresh mozzarella and a light (but not pink), zesty tomato sauce.
My second favorite dish from the specials board was the Caprese chicken over pasta (I’m obviously a tomato/tomato sauce guy). Thick, tender (thanks to that homemade stock?) chicken breasts are topped with also-thick slices of delicious, fresh tomatoes, dense (but perfectly melted) slabs of fresh mozzarella in a thicker tomato sauce more reminiscent of Little Italy’s original sauce, topped with fresh basil. It was served over a helping of spaghetti that provided side dishes for two more meals for me after all that I left over during my visit.
The third new entrée I sampled was the chicken panna, which is served in a thinner-than-Alfredo creamy sauce with pancetta, peas and fresh mushrooms. Jessica said it was her favorite of the new specials and she almost didn’t let me steal even a bite from her (just kidding, Jess).
And of course, yes, you can still order anything from the restaurant’s existing menu, although you might want to ask your server to explain any tweaks Sam may have made to Little Italy’s locally famous lasagne, veal parmigiana (my personal favorite; more on that below), chicken piccata, calzones and huge, rectangular pizzas.
You might just recognize that server, by the way, as Jessica says that she is now going to sometimes work the floor as a server, especially on the weekends, because she really does want Little Italy’s thousands of loyal fans to have full explanations of every new dish and any tweaks Sam may have made to their favorite dishes when they visit.
“All I can say is that the guy is doing amazing things in that kitchen,” Jessica says, “so I want to explain to our customers what goes into making these dishes.”
Carl adds, “This restaurant and kitchen aren’t large enough to do true fine Italian dining. But, what we’re serving now is a step up from what we’ve been doing, without being a step up in price.”
Sam told me not to order the veal parmigiana until the next time I came in because Little Italy’s just started using a new meat purveyor, “and I-a want-a you to-a taste-a the good-a vitello (veal).” He says there will be osso buco (veal shanks on the bone) on the specials board soon and maybe even a steak special.
“Oh, and-a Gary, I know you’re-a not-a the only-a one who likes-a fresh veggies,” Sam says. “We’ll-a give you a choice-a of pasta or veggies with-a your (non-pasta) entrée, too.”
And of course, Sam can create just about anything you want for your next party. Catering has long been a big part of Little Italy’s success the past three years, and I don’t see that side of the business slowing down anytime soon. I guarantee you that a big tray of Little Italy’s lasagne would be the perfect addition to any 4th of July celebration.
And, of course, Little Italy’s still has a “Little Goombas” menu and recently added beer and wine. So, enjoy a delicious glass (or bottle) of delicious chianti, pino grigio or Grandma’s homemade sangria, or a Peroni or domestic beer and get to know the new Little Italy’s. It’ll be “molto delizioso.”
Little Italy’s (24436 S.R. 54, Lutz) is open for dinner only Tues.-Fri. and for lunch & dinner on Sat. & Sun. For info, call (813) 909-2122, or visit LittleItalyFamilyRestaurant.com.