I wanted to go to Cafe Firenze even before I knew what it was--the restaurant of Chef Fabio Viviani, the #4 contestant from season five of the television show Top Chef. The glitz of Los Angeles proper doesn't generally make its way out to places like Moorpark, which is several miles over the Ventura County line, a few miles north of Thousand Oaks. I was curious--could a place out in the boonies measure up? An 80% off coupon code for Restaurant.com made it easy to find out. I got a $25 gift certificate for $2 and off we went.
Strawberry balsamic martini
I couldn't believe how packed the restaurant was on a Tuesday night at 8:00--we had to wait a good 15 minutes for a table. We camped out on some broken-in leather couches in the boisterous bar area, where the low lighting was on par with a night club but the flat screen television tuned to a sports channel brought back the bar vibe. I don't know what the singles scene is like in Moorpark, but the bar at Cafe Firenze would seem to be a good place for it. They don't just have the same old boring drinks, either--they have a very extensive list of innovative martinis (complete with $10 price tag--is that considered cheap these days?). I tried the strawberry balsamic martini, made with fresh strawberries, lime juice, vanilla vodka, and perhaps another ingredient or two. If they weren't so expensive, I definitely would have ordered a second one (or two, or three)--this drink was fantastic.
My mom ordered the caesar salad as an appetizer and thought it was the best caesar salad she'd ever had. To me, it tasted the same as every other caesar I've ever had--it was tasty, but nothing out of the ordinary.
Proscuitto and melon appetizer
I was very excited to try the proscuitto and melon appetizer, which is something I've never had before. I gather that it's supposed to be a very simple dish based on two ingredients that, when high quality, are delicious enough to stand on their own but are even better together. So to me, it seemed like this appetizer really had too many ingredients, with balsamic vinegar, burrata cheese (like fresh mozarella, but softer and more moist), arugula, and fried balls of dough that were like donut holes, without the glaze, if they had been sitting out for 24 hours. The canteloupe was grilled, and the way the natural sugars had carmelized along the grill marks was heavenly.
However, with only two slices of canteloupe and a whole heap of proscuitto, the ratio of the dish's most important ingredients was off. The arugula (my favorite leaf lettuce) really didn't add anything to the dish--some might think that it's peppery crunch was a nice contrast to the more subtle flavors of the cheese, melon, and ham, but to me it just seemed out of place. The fried dough balls definitely seemed like an afterthought--even if they hadn't been stale, they wouldn't have added anything to the dish. I would have gladly eaten a pound of the cheese in one sitting, though, and the portion was quite generous for an appetizer and for the price. I was almost full afterward. Curiously, the appetizer pictured here looks nothing like the photo of the same dish on the restaurant's website.
The meal portions were kind of hit or miss, however. The lobster ravioli was about the same size as my appetizer, while the lamb shank was enough for two meals. The flavor of this dish was pleasant, but it just didn't seem as rich as lobster ravioli usually seems. Maybe that's a good thing if you don't like heavy food, though, and in my opinion, the richness of lobster is perpetually overrated. The shrimp provided a nice touch--they aren't usually part of a dish like this. It might be worth ordering again, but perhaps something else on the menu would be better.
The lamb shank was a disappointment because it was overcooked, dry and hard in some places and not nearly as tender as it could have been in others. It certainly didn't fall off the bone or melt in my mouth. The wine reduction sauce was flavorful, but couldn't compensate for the dry meat. I took home the leftover meat, shredded it, and put it in a stew. The gnocchi with mushrooms and gorgonzola cream sauce was another story--if eating so much fat in one sitting wasn't just asking for it, I'd gladly consume this dish a few times a week. Nothing could be smoother or richer than the combination of savory mushrooms, gnocchi so soft they don't even need to be chewed, and cheese fused with cream. I'll take this dish over fettucini alfredo any day.
The dining room is divided into several sections. Part of it is adjacent to the bar, so if you don't like noisy dining, ask for a table in the back room. Regardless of where you sit, the restaurant has a very impressive feel because of its high ceilings and weighty decor--heavy beams, oversized chandeliers, high-backed leather chairs. It's definitely nice enough for a date or impressive enough for a business dinner. The service was friendly and competent, if a little slow at times.
I guess the most surprising/disappointing thing about the restaurant is that while it was fairly good, I expected it to be amazing. I thought that someone who a) made it on to Top Chef in the first place and b) got as far in the competition as he did would serve better food. Eating at Cafe Firenze actually made me doubt the legitimacy of Top Chef as a competition. This certainly wasn't the food of one of the top chefs in the nation--it's not creative enough or perfect enough. Of course, a lot of the best chefs in the country have no desire to be on a reality cooking show, so that limits the applicant pool.
That being said, if you put aside your expectations about what a Top Chef's restaurant is supposed to be like, you'll probably be pretty pleased with your meal. At most Italian restaurants in the United States, you already know what to expect before you even set foot in the door--that's why I don't really like going out to eat for Italian. The menu at Cafe Firenze breaks that mold by serving more than just lasagna, fettucini and pizza, and there aren't a lot of restaurants like it in the area, which is dominated by low-key places and chains. Even though I didn't love everything I tried and the prices are a little high for the 'burbs (though not for the amount of food you get in most dishes), I would go back, especially since it looks like new items have already appeared on the menu since my last visit (I want to try the octopus).
Italian Restaurant and Martini Lounge
563 W. Los Angeles Ave.
Moorpark, CA 93021
Cafe Firenze Website
Tue., Wed., Sun. 11am-10pm
Thur., Fri., Sat. 11am-2am