University Boulevard cuts a wide swath through the heart of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. On one end is a collection of once thriving neighborhoods. At the center lies the campus of the University of Alabama with its attendant “Strip” of college-dominated restaurants and bars. At the other end, the part that runs through a struggling downtown business district teetering on the edge of either revival or oblivion, is DePalma’s Italian Cafe, a small culinary jewel tucked into a charming old corner brick edifice that once housed a ladies department store.
If you’ve read any of my other restaurant reviews – and if you haven’t, you really should – you’ll know that I have certain criteria regarding Italian eateries. For instance, at least somebody on the staff has to speak Italian. The more Italian speakers, the higher the rating. When I walk through the door and say something like, “Vorrei un tavolo per due, per favore,” if the host or hostess smiles and leads me to a table for two, that’s a point. If I order in Italian and the waiter doesn’t flinch, that’s another point. (I once had a strange experience at a Greek-owned Italian place in Atlanta. I was ordering in Italian, the waiter was responding in Greek and neither of us was getting anywhere.) And ambiance is a factor, too. Now, I don’t necessarily mean red checkered tablecloths and Italian flags on the walls, but the sights, sounds, and smells of a real Italian place are usually unmistakeable.
Most importantly, of course, is the quality of the food. Fresh made dishes constructed from high quality fresh ingredients are an absolute must. Anything less and I might as well be at an Olive Garden.
By my first criteria, DePalma’s should fail miserably. Italian? Come on! This is downtown Tuscaloosa, a stone’s throw from Bryant-Denny Stadium! You’re far more likely to be greeted with, “Roll Tide!” than you are “Benvenuti!” (In case you ever need to know, “Rotolare Marea” would be “Roll Tide” in Italian.)
And it certainly doesn’t look like an Italian restaurant. What with the mixture of antique movie posters, celebrity photos, and advertising signs adorning the walls, it looks more like an urban version of Cracker Barrel. But, strangely enough, this “shabby chic” atmosphere that can feel so contrived in other places actually works here. The terra cotta tiled floors and slightly mismatched furnishings blend nicely with a somewhat faded Tuscan color palette, accented by the aforementioned eclectic collection of art and accent pieces. In an odd sort of way, it’s just the kind of place you’d find off the beaten path in Italy, where they don’t really try to look “Italian.”
Then the smell of the food hits you and you just know that there are good things going on in the kitchen. Something intangible urges you to proceed.
Amidst a bustling lunch service, we were attended to promptly by a very cheerful and accommodating hostess who seated us in a booth situated between a movie poster advertising one of Ezio Pinza’s lesser efforts and a reproduction photograph of Wild Bill Hickok. We found ourselves basking in the gaze of a bust not of an ancient emperor of Rome, but of the somewhat more contemporary King of Rock and Roll. Oh, and let’s not forget Moe, Larry, and Curly, resplendent in golf attire, surveying the scene from the wall above an adjacent table.
Our server, who arrived tableside almost before we were seated, was exceptionally knowledgeable not only about the menu, but about Italian cuisine in general. Quite impressive. Service was prompt, efficient, and friendly without being intrusive. I like servers who magically appear when you need them but don’t otherwise hover and interrupt.
And then there was the food. Any doubts about the Italian character of this place were put to rest with a single glance at the expansive lunch menu, which offered a variety of choices ranging from pasta dishes through salads, pizza and panini.
My wife selected a chicken Caesar salad, which she pronounced perfect. The crisp, fresh mixed greens were complimented by a house-made Caesar dressing and croutons that had obviously never seen the inside of a box. When questioned, our server confirmed that they were, indeed, fatto in casa. Well…she actually said “homemade.” In fact,we were assured that nearly everything on the menu was made fresh whenever possible.
My wife then moved on to enjoy a steak sandwich – and I do mean enjoy. It was almost sensual. A lush garden of radicchio, mixed greens, and tomatoes surrounded thick chunks of perfectly prepared medium rare steak suffused with garlic butter, all served on a lightly toasted sandwich roll. Although more an American-style hoagie than a traditional Italian panino – which is generally grilled and pressed – it was so delicious and she was so delighted by every bite that she actually made it a point to show me every bite as she took it, saying, “Look how tender!” or “See how perfectly that’s cooked?” I felt like I was intruding on a religious experience. It was a difficult choice between the steak sandwich and its roasted chicken menu companion, an item that was a more nearly authentic panino, served up on oven-toasted ciabatta. Maybe next time. (Note to faux Italian restauranteurs: “panino” is the singular form, “panini” is plural. One does not have “a” panini nor does one advertise “paninis,” there actually being no such word.)
One of our companions opted for ham and cheese, which turned out to be a very good sandwich. Now, one can’t rhapsodize too much over a ham and cheese sandwich, but the flavorful black forest ham topped with provolone and served on a lightly toasted hoagie roll was lauded as excellent. What made it unique – and Italianesque, I suppose – was the addition of a light application of garlic butter. The subtle buttery garlic element was a nice accent to the ham and cheese and provided an interesting depth of flavor. A garnish of mixed greens and tomato, along with crispy thick cut kettle-style potato chips, rounded out a perfect lunch plate.
Our other companion chose a seafood stuffed shell; a flavorful combination of flaky white fish and shrimp in a tender pasta shell with a creamy feta cheese sauce served on a bed of fresh baby spinach. It, too, was deemed delicious.
I – always a sucker for a good pizza – chose to indulge my passion. I was not disappointed. My simple cheese pizza was simply exquisite. If someone from Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the Italian commission that regulates the production of true Neopolitan-style pizza, were to visit DePalma’s, they would be suitably impressed. The thin, crisp, airy, and slightly chewy crust was absolutely perfect as was the ratio of sauce to cheese. I could have seriously hurt myself with that pizza. And they have Peroni Nastro Azzurro, my favorite Italian beer, on tap. A definite plus.
We split desserts, starting with cannoli. We devoured the perfectly prepared concoction in shamefully speedy fashion, resisting the urge to lick the final remnants of chocolate and sweet ricotta from the plate. If there hadn’t been fifty or sixty people in the place, it might have been another story.
The white chocolate bread pudding came highly recommended, and the server who recommended it should get a raise. Also made fresh in-house and served warm. Fantastico!
And that was just lunch! Can’t wait to try DePalma’s for dinner. Soon.
Reasonably priced and conveniently located near City Hall in downtown Tuscaloosa, DePalma’s is open from 11 AM to 10 PM Monday through Thursday and from 11 AM to 11PM on Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday. Reservations are not required. Casual dress is acceptable. On street parking is available and several free parking lots are within easy walking distance.
DePalma’s Italian Cafe
2300 University Blvd
Tuscaloosa, AL 25401