I've thrown a few highly sharpened kitchen knives at suburban chain restaurants here and there, so my next sentence might surprise you: I like Karlo's Bistro Italia. Karlo's tries -- and generally succeeds -- to serve good food and provide a pleasant dining experience.
I had an interesting insight recently when a boss at my other job commented that Northern Kentucky was finally getting some "good restaurants." When I asked a few questions, I found out that his criteria for "good" had less to do with his own dining experience than it did with a restaurant's reputation and popularity. In other words, it's good if his friends think of it right away when someone asks, "Where should we eat?" Also, he wants to be able to park near the door and pay the check with the cash in his pocket. Note: He carries considerably more cash than I do!
Karlo's is going to meet those criteria. But it's also significant that Karlo's meets my standards, which are a bit more stringent in the food department.
My favorite appetizer at Karlo's is the Three Pepper Calamari ($7.95). Yeah, it's fried, but it's peppered -- actually four peppers, since there's black pepper in the batter, and roasted red bell peppers, cherry peppers and sweet banana peppers tossed alongside the calamari. So far, so good -- but get this -- the mayonnaise served with the calamari is actually homemade aioli, deliciously flavored with lemon and basil. Just a small example of the details that make Karlo's different. There's a no-pepper Calamari ($7.25) on the menu that's ordered more often, but the peppered version earns my devotion.
In honor of their 10th anniversary, Karlo's is offering more extensive wine choices. The list looks intriguing. If you decide to go all out, they've got a Bolla Amarone Special Reserve ($63/bottle), the wine my ex-father-in-law serves for once-in-a-lifetime events like funerals and circumcisions.
Dunk the complimentary crusty bread in olive oil and balsamico while you sip the wine. The bread is generally warm from the oven, so it's easy to polish off several slices before your inner carb monitor says, "Hey! Whatsa matta fa you!"
To quiet the ghost of Dr. Atkins, I ordered the fish special, Grilled Tilapia, served with chopped tomatoes, red onions, and capers on bed of spinach and linguine ($17.95). The ghost was a little unhappy with the linguine, but I was not. The fish was perhaps the tiniest bit overdone, but not dry, and I appreciated the caper accent. I've never gotten around to trying the classic linguine with clam sauce ($12.45) here, but it's on my to-do list.
My husband has a favorite dish at Karlo's that never disappoints him -- Gnocchi with Chicken, Asparagus, and Gorgonzola sauce ($11.95). The sauce is very mild, rich and creamy, with the resulting dish falling firmly into the category of comfort food.
But there are more adventurous selections. The manager told me on follow-up that their top seller is Chicken Marsala with Wild Mushrooms ($13.45), and I've enjoyed the spicy peppered-vodka arrabiata sauce, although I request it over angel hair pasta instead of penne ($9.95). All the sauces are made from scratch, and the kitchen will make substitutions if you like to mix and match. Side orders of gorgonzola mashed potatoes ($2.95) and the oven-roasted Yukon potatoes with garlic ($2.95) are both excellent, so you can take the meat and potatoes route.
Order an espresso ($2.25), and save room for dessert. The tiramisu ($4.95) is made in-house, and while it's not quite as boozy as it could be, it's very good. Cannolis ($4.50) are rich enough to share, and what could be more romantic than sharing cannoli while Ella Fitzgerald sings "A Foggy Day"?
This is as close to a kid-friendly nice restaurant as you can get, with basic pizzas and spaghetti and meatballs available. There are some more exotic pizza choices as well, including the sublime sauceless Margherita, with sliced roma tomatoes and basil ($8.25). The décor at Karlo's is low-key -- black-and-white tile floors, black-and-white photos of someone's Brooklyn aunts and uncles on the walls. Nothing to get excited about, but hey, you can't eat the scenery. Investing in the food is a lot more important.
The northern Ohio city I grew up in had an Italian neighborhood, a genuine Little Italy with bakeries, pizza parlors, and restaurants with candles in chianti bottles. I miss that, and Karlo's won't fill that niche. But it offers a fresh approach to Italian fare, with plenty of nods to the classics, reasonably good service, and Tony Bennett on the soundtrack. Alla salute! ©
Karlo's Bistro Italia
Go: 4911 Houston Road, Florence
Hours: Lunch: noon-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday; Dinner: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday
Prices: Reasonable to moderate
Payment: All major cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Many seafood choices, meatless pizza and pasta dishes