Diner: Pssst ...

Ferrari's Little Italy is a secret Madeira hideaway

I've driven past the sign for Ferrari's Little Italy on the main drag in Madeira dozens of times without stopping in. I suspect I'm not alone. When I asked numerous friends and colleagues about Ferrari's, most had never heard of the place or perhaps had heard of it but didn't know much about it or had seen the sign on Miami Avenue but didn't know where the restaurant was. All this despite the fact that Ferrari's has been open for nearly 11 years.

Proudly describing itself as "Cincinnati's best kept secret," Ferrari's nonetheless seems to have a loyal following among an in-the-know clientele who head there for its big portions of hearty Italian food, informal atmosphere and friendly service.

I have to confess something: Of all the restaurants I frequent as a food writer, I often struggle when I head out for Italian. It's definitely a family thing — my family tree is three-fourths Italian, peopled by big-hearted, food-loving relatives with blood that runs thicker than a good marinara sauce. I'm talking about the kind of folks who make their own pasta, always have a few pots of basil growing in the yard and cure their own olives.

From this culinary heritage, I acquired an I-can-make-it-better-myself smugness when it comes to Italian food that negates the offering of most Italian restaurants. Frankly, I'd rather cook at home than experience Italian food restaurant style.

So I'll be completely transparent: Based on my experience at Ferrari's, it's not a place I'm likely to head back to again. Don't let yourself be unduly influenced by me, though.

Looking around Ferrari's, I saw a lot of happy people talking, laughing, eating and clearly enjoying themselves. Those who know it seem to really like Ferrari's and keep coming back for family meals, pre-theater suppers, prom dinners and so on.

To start, we ordered the Funghi al Forno ($7.95), Portobello mushrooms sautéed in olive oil and garlic. Many of the dishes at Ferrari's are offered in large or small portions. We ordered the small, which was more than enough for two.

The flavor was appealing, but the mushrooms were mostly woody and undercooked. We also tried the Fresh Mozzarella ($8.75, small portion), really a mixed salad with lettuce, onions, tomato and ample slices of fresh cheese.

For my entrée, I had the Seafood Cannelloni ($20.50). Made with fresh spinach, ricotta cheese, lobster, shrimp and crabmeat, it came in a pool of rich, creamy sauce. The cannelloni were stuffed with chunks of fresh seafood. I found this dish unusual and enjoyed it, although it was too rich for me to finish.

My companion had the Eggplant Parmesan ($14.95, small portion). Ferrari's version of this classic consisted of breaded, fried rounds of eggplant with some sauce ladled on top. This was very different than the kind of Eggplant Parmesan I prefer to see baked in sauce and cheese until the eggplant softens and melts away in a rich melding of flavors and textures.

We also tried the Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto Pizza ($9.50), one of a dozen or so varieties ranging from the typical (Cheese) to the questionable (Loaded Baked Potato). The crust was decent, but the sun-dried tomato pesto topping was too strong; it would have been better if there had been less of it.

For dessert, we ordered the Tiramisu ($5.95), a very respectable rendition of this favorite and more than enough for the two of us to split. All desserts are made in an on-premise bakery that also sells bread and pastries and stocks sundry Italian specialty foods.

Service was welcoming and efficient, although things did get off to a shaky start when we waited too long after being seated.

The décor is an unusual culinary combination: Italo-Mexican. The building was once a Mexican restaurant; once you know this, you see traces everywhere. Inside it sprawls like a hacienda, with fireplaces, big ceiling beams and rooms opening up to more rooms. There's an outside patio for dining in warmer weather.

Although it's a little off the beaten path, if you like simple, straightforward Italian food and haven't been to Ferrari's, you should consider heading there. It's always fun to uncover a secret. ©

Ferrari's Little Italy & Bakery
Go: 7677 Goff Terrace, Madeira

Call: 513-272-2220

Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Monday- Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 4-9 p.m. Sunday Bakery hours: 7:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Prices: Moderate-expensive

Payment: Major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Pasta, pizza, chicken, seafood

Accessibility: Yes

Grade: B

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