It’s a space that hasn’t been kind to its previous tenants, be they cafés or ice cream joints, but then neither of those businesses offered their clientele a heaping plate of freshly made pasta, a choice of six sauces and a garlic breadstick for a paltry $4.99. For Ravalia’s, that sort of late-20th-century pricing could result in early-21st-century longevity, particularly for a restaurant situated along a stretch of Highway 17-92 not really known for its gustatory attractions.
But owners Alfio and Bonnie Ravaglia are no strangers to the biz – they ran a restaurant in New York’s Little Italy in the ’80s and early ’90s before selling and moving to Florida. Two decades later, they find themselves trying to make a go of it in the heart of Casselberry – that their cuisine of choice is Italian bodes well for the fledgling joint; that pizza isn’t a part of the offerings doesn’t. Have a chat with Alfio and you’ll see why a brisk takeout and delivery service isn’t what they had in mind. The guy’s a real schmoozer and a charmer, and you can tell he feels as much at home in the front of the house as Silvio Berlusconi does at a bunga-bunga party.
Said front is typical of a fast-casual eatery: Along one wall, a line of tables runs parallel to an open kitchen. There are a few high-tops scattered near the entrance, and a counter bisected with a gelato display case. Never one to pass up dessert, I heartily accepted Alfio’s generous sample of blood-orange gelato before I even looked at the menu, and it appeared to have worked as an aperitif – scarfing down a heaping plate of house-made cavatelli with marinara ($4.99) was practically effortless. This is red-sauce dining at its most transparent, and it’s quite clear that the kitchen understands the value of simplicity, whether serving al dente penne with a zesty San Marzano tomato sauce or rigatoni with an “Old World” sauce chunked with sausage, pork and meatballs ($1.99 extra). Spaghetti, shells and fettucine are also offered – I sampled the latter as a side with a Tuscan rotisserie chicken breast and wing ($6.49) and it couldn’t have been less adorned. I suppose some might find the flavors too simple, boring even, but getting back to basics can be refreshing in a day and age where our palates seem to be as fixated on novelty-seeking as our attention spans. That said, I’d love to see orecchiette (a staple in Ravaglia’s native Bari) become the seventh house-made pasta offered up.
Incidentally, I asked Alfio why the “g” in “Ravaglia” was dropped from the restaurant’s moniker. “It’s easier for people to pronounce,” he joked, then added, “Besides, if creditors come looking for a ‘Ravalia,’ I can tell them there’s no one here with that name.” That same saucy attitude is found in sandwiches like the heavy meatball grinder ($6.49) and the steak pizzaiola grinder ($6.99) fashioned from USDA Prime beef. The bread seemed inconsistent – hard on one sandwich, but warm and crisp on the other. Italian extracts go into making the gelato ($1.49-$3.99), arguably the most popular dessert offering here – consider splashing a scoop or two with espresso for a traditional gelato affogato ($3.99). The cannoli trio ($3.99), however, really made an impression with fresh-made fillings.
Fast-casual eateries abound in the city, but not very many successfully combine a dedication to traditional cooking techniques and a focus on customer relations, all the while maintaining a fiercely independent spirit. Ravalia’s does, and does it well. And at these prices, it’s hard to say basta to the pasta.
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