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Day Trip to Tuscany 

A meal at Cafe Giovanna is almost as good as the real thing

There aren't too many meals that can transport one to another country. Take a bite or two at Cafe Giovanna and you'll forget the little strip mall outside where you parked your car. Take another bite, close your eyes, and you can almost feel the Tuscan breeze.

It's been almost seven years since Giovanna Fenati opened her little restaurant downtown on Kiowa, and about three years since she relocated it to Garden of the Gods Road -- downtown's loss, high-tech highway's gain. It's also been a while since the Indy reviewed Cafe Giovanna, so in the interest of an update, I rounded up some pals (most of whom had been to Italy many times) and headed over.

The main change we noted seems to be a concession to American dining habits: We're accustomed to single, large entrees. Italians tend to eat several smaller courses. When the restaurant first opened, one could eat that way; portions were small and prices were modest. Although the menu is still sectioned into Antipasti, First Course and Second Course, only a very large appetite and wallet could select from each section. It's best to go with a crowd of friends and share plates. And just as the space at this second location is larger, the menu offers more choices than when Caf Giovanna was last reviewed -- all of it demonstrating the best of northern Italian cuisine.

Any of the three Antipasti will whet your appetite. We tried a traditional Antipasto Italiano and the Antipasto Mare. The former was a generous platter of sliced meats -- prosciutto, salami, dried ham -- wonderful cheeses, artichokes, carrots and red peppers, all lightly graced with a delicate vinaigrette. The seafood appetizer was shrimp, scallops, calamari and mussels on a bed of fresh greens. The two dishes offered enough for the six of us to sample everything.

A salad of mixed baby greens with paper-thin slices of onion, the freshest tomato ever seen in March, a strawberry and a sprinkle of lentils cleansed the palate before the pasta course. One of Giovanna's pasta dishes should be on everyone's Top 10 Dishes list, but which one? Pappardelle with Apples and Mascarpone, or Pappardelle with Pork and Saffron? Tagliolini with Salmon and Pesto (which was fabulous), or Cappelletti Bolognese? All the pastas are homemade, all the sauces are painstakingly cooked, and all the dishes are divine. We particularly enjoyed the Pappardelle with mushrooms, Asiago cheese and speck, an Italian bacon. Several pastas are gluten-free, a bonus for diners with food allergies.

Pasta prices range from $19.50 to $23. A single diner would have enough leftovers for the next day's dinner; three pasta dishes were more than enough for our first course. We were fueled, however, by some pleasant Italian wine (there are five reds and five whites -- all but two available by the glass), and we were there to gorge ourselves.

There were serious selection issues regarding the second course. Not only did every entree sound good, every entree could have been a first choice. Three meat dishes, three seafood dishes -- each completely different from the rest. Second-course dishes are priced from $19 to $26. We chose Gamberoni con Pancetta e Scalogno (shrimp with caramelized apples and pancetta); Grilled Lamb Chops with an indescribably good herb sauce; and Veal Scaloppine in a Marsala Sauce. With regret we passed over the red snapper in lemon-mint cream sauce; scallops in a sauce pinked with cherry liqueur; and pork tenderloin topped with Gorgonzola and prunes in brandy.

Words like "wow," "yum," and "ooh" hung in the air as we dug in, too busy eating to utter more than single syllables. The shrimp was fabulous, the lamb exquisite. Though the veal was tender and delicate, the only minor note was the paucity of Marsala sauce. Again, portions were large and side accompaniments were as tasty as the main event -- a vegetable flan and roasted red peppers were particularly complementary to the lamb.

Our dessert course took a turn toward comfort food: tiramisu, a rice cheesecake, and semifreddo, a half-frozen zabaglione. The semifreddo was great, the tiramisu was good; the rice cheesecake, less sweet than a typical cheesecake, got mixed reviews.

I don't know how Giovanna does it. The restaurant is open six days a week; she makes pastas and desserts daily; and to pass along the lessons her mother and grandmother taught her so well, she offers cooking classes. She doesn't schedule open classes -- "People talk and they don't pay attention," she explained. Instead, interested students should contact her to discuss time and topic. Her suggestions change with the season and availability: Gnocchi from scratch in the fall, perhaps, or a pasta with a light summertime sauce. Gather up some friends and schedule some quality time with one of our town's treasures. With Easter coming up, maybe you can persuade her to share the mystery of the herbed lamb chops. But try it at the restaurant first. Or try the pork tenderloin. Or the Tagliolini Di Mare. Or the Cappelletti with cream and truffles. Why not try it all?

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