First Bites: Italian Oven Café

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Mall fast food is a pretty goddamned dismal mouthful, but this little joint in CityPlace has gotten enough foodie buzz for Charlie to put his intestinal tract on the line and check it out. 

Italian Oven Café is the sole and way-slimmed-down survivor of the Pittsburgh-based Italian Oven chain that got up to 100-plus units in the U.S. and Australia before crashing and burning in the mid-1990s. It's a cute place with a sort of generic-moderne décor, done up in soothing earth tones with lots of comfy booths and the look and feel of a semi-upscale café.

You order at the counter from a menu of apps, composed salads, pizzas, pastas, and panini, with everything but some lobster and shrimp ravioli costing ten bucks or less. That done, you get a card with a number, stick it on your table, and a server will deliver your food. It's a pretty efficient system, though it can back up when the hungry hordes descend at lunch. 

And what about that food? 

For quick, healthy-tasting, uncomplicated eating, whether in or to go, it's not half-bad. Portions aren't huge, but prices aren't either, and everything Charlie sampled tasted of fresh, quality ingredients, from crisp, pepper arugula to a variety of cheeses to tomato sauces made with San Marzano tomatoes. 

Individual pizzas are $6 (unless you add more goodies) and sport that NY-style pizza crust -- crisp around the edges, foldable in the middle. The quattro formaggio comes gilded with caramelized onions, spinach, and pistachios, the grilled chicken and spinach with roasted tomatoes and pancetta. Toppings are applied with a fairly light hand, so they're not the most filling pies in the world... on the other hand, whaddaya want for six bucks? 

Lasagna tastes freshly made, with thin sheets of properly cooked pasta, big chunks of meat, and good marinara -- it's more like the product of a real restaurant than a fast-food joint. There are good panini too, like the grilled chicken with crispy onions, fresh mozzarella, and damned tasty lemon-artichoke pesto. It costs $8 and comes with a tiny ramekin of passable pasta salad. 

Let's put it this way: You could do (and probably have done) a whole helluva lot worse.

Italian Oven Café
477 S. Rosemary, West Palm Beach
561-804-6624
italianovencafe.net

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