Fort Lauderdale Must-Try Restaurant: Italio

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Italio is one of those restaurants you don’t know you’re missing until you try it. And then you do, and you wonder – where has this restaurant been all my life?

If there is one category of food that’s oversaturated in South Florida, it’s Italian. Good Italian. In Fort Lauderdale alone, there’s Casa D’Angelo, Valentino, Cafe Martorano, Kitchenetta – the list of high-end, award-winning spots goes on. But what South Florida has been missing is the casual – but quality – Italian experience.  A place to grab take-out during a lunch break, or a place to go on a Saturday night when you just don’t feel like wearing heels. A place that’s fast, but not quite fast food. A place you don’t have to feel as guilty about eating at, because you know the ingredients are fresh and the kitchen is clean.

South Florida has this for Mexican food – think Zona Fresca or the Whole Enchilada. It has this for American food – try Shula Burger or PDQ. So why haven’t South Floridians had this for Italian before? Seriously, let them eat pasta!

Italio finally makes it possible for pasta junkies to have Italian everyday. The chain, which currently has four locations across the country, offers a fully customizable Italian experience. Guests instruct the chefs on what to add to their dish, and it’s assembled and cooked right in front of them. For guests who feel overwhelmed by the challenge of composing their own pasta, salad or wrap, there’s a chef’s menu with recommended concoctions.

After hearing rave reviews about the brand from friends, I finally tried Italio last week and loved it. A quick run down of the menu:

The Piadas:

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These Italian wraps are what Italio specializes in. Packed with fresh veggies and protein, it’s the pastas and sauces that take these wraps to another level. I tried two from the chef’s menu. The grilled chicken Piada – with romaine lettuce, bruschetta, Piada croutons, aged Parmesan cheese and Italian dressing – is kind of like a chicken caesar wrap, but the Italian dressing and bruschetta make it uber-flavoral. The Piada croutons add crunch and almost remind me of airy, bubbly fried crackers. The Italian sausage Piada – with pasta, sauteed peppers and onions, black olives, Mozzarella cheese and Spicy Prima Rosa sauce – was also good.

The pasta:

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I tried two different types of pasta. The meatball pasta, with basil chiffonade, bruschetta, black olives, Mozzarella cheese, and Basil Pomodoro sauce, is from the chef’s menu. It was also by far my favorite dish. Just a perfect combination of flavors – the fresh, housemade bruschetta, the olives, the basil. So good. The second pasta was a spicy chicken parmesan the manager recommended for me. The dish was simple, but well done, and the spicy red sauce distinguished it from your normal-run-of-the-mill chicken parm.

The salads:

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I tried the grilled chicken salad from the chef’s menu – bruschetta, roasted garlic, Piada croutons and aged Parmesan cheese. It’s normally served with Italian dressing but I subbed it for caesar to distinguish it from the grilled chicken Piada I’d tried. It was good – and in fact, when I crave Italio now, I think about two things: this dish and my favorite meatball pasta. I also tried a creation the manager dreamt up for me – baby spinach, shrimp, cucumbers, black olives and a lemon herb vinaigrette – that was light and refreshing.

Dessert and drinks:

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Italio currently offers one type of dessert, but it stands out. The cannoli chips come in a brown paper bag and are served with a sweet cream and chocolate chip dipping sauce. The chips are super light and not overly filling like so many desserts can be. The amount of dipping sauce provided gives the perfect chip-to-sauce ratio – I finished my cannoli chips and sauce at the same time.

The restaurant also offers a selection of beer and wine, and the manager told me that the alcoholic beverages are hugely popular. Which got me thinking – not only is Italio a great takeout spot, but it would make for a perfect, relaxing dinner for a date night, too.

The ambience:

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The restaurant’s setting is rustic and modern. Industrial benches line sleek, large wooden tables and windows offer plenty of natural lighting. I was told no two Italios look the same, which can only mean one thing – I’ll just have to check out the Boca location next.

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