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Cafe Formaggio

307 Old Country Rd. Carle Place, NY 516-333-1718

The dining room at Cafe Formaggio in Carle

(Credit: Newsday, 2008 / Viorel Florescu)

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Type: Italian-American, Italian Special features: Wheelchair accessible Price range: $$$ (Expensive) Description:

Cafe Formaggio's menu can be a challenge to navigate, filled with rococo dishes with invented names such as "salmon Trapani" and "shrimp Mona Lisa." The ingredients, though, are good, the kitchen generally skilled, the portions more than copious. Order simply and you should eat well, leaving with enough leftovers to sustain you another night -- or two, or three.

 Since its opening in 2006, Café Formaggio has always offered some gluten-free selections. In late 2009, owner Vincent Barbieri decided to create a separate gluten-free menu that features just about every item on the regular menu. Of course, there are the gluten-free pastas and pizzas, but also fried calamari, mozzarella sticks and zucchini, which are all cooked in a separate fryolator.

Reservations: Not Accepted Accessibility: Yes

The modest yet noble meatball is often relegated to the list of side dishes on today's more ambitious Italian menus. Had I not gone to Cafe Formaggio for lunch one recent afternoon, I might never have known about the meatballs at this big, splashy trattoria. Luckily, however, a prominent special on the midday menu was meatball sliders -- ingenious little sandwiches starring the light, garlicky globes (flattened somewhat) thinly coated with tomato sauce, topped with a shaving of Parmesan and sandwiched between two squares of puff pastry. One bite and I was impressed enough to ask for several to-go orders of meatballs in sauce. They ended up the hit of an office party later that afternoon. In marked contrast to those meatballs was the Margherita pizza from the restaurant's wood-burning oven, the scent of which seductively fills the place. I thought the crust somewhat tough, the tomato sauce overly sweet. But I liked the mellifluous "femina" panino, a toasted sandwich filled with grilled vegetables, broccoli rabe, roasted portobello and fresh mozzarella. On a return evening visit, I found myself won over by an appetizer of perfectly grilled shrimp and calamari. A platter of golden-brown fried zucchini, served with a lively marinara dipping sauce, had just the right crunch, the batter-dipped zucchini, still a trifle firm, as they should be. While it's certainly possible to order spaghetti (or any other pasta) with meatballs, that dish appears nowhere on the menu. Instead, there are more ornate creations, such as penne Madeira, described as "chicken strips and cubed homemade mozzarella sauteed in a Madeira wine-plum tomato brown sauce." While the friend who ordered that dish liked it (surprisingly, so did I), she was at a loss to figure out the sauce, an odd combination of several sauces. Gnocchi Calatafini -- semolina dumplings with eggplant and ricotta salata -- was a fairly heavy dish -- two forkfuls and I'd had it. But the seafood pasta called aqua pizza -- linguine with mussels, littleneck clams, calamari and shrimp in a filetto di pomodoro tomato sauce with fresh basil -- was pleasingly light, not one of the components overcooked, a problem, often, in mixed shellfish dishes. Although I'd ordered sole oreganata, I ended up with salmon instead. The waiter apologized and I told him I was fine with the fish, which, topped with a mantle of well-seasoned bread crumbs, would have been a full success had it spent less time on the heat. Better was the Italian-American classic chicken scarpariello, made here with moist, flavorful cubes of boneless white meat poultry combined with sausage, potatoes and peppers in a white wine sauce. We allowed ourselves to be talked into the restaurant's signature dessert, Nutella pizza. This is the kind of thing some people will flip over -- a pizza crust slathered with the gooey European chocolate hazelnut spread and topped with bananas, apples, strawberries and caramel. For me, it's simply too many disparate elements. Instead, I contented myself picking off the fruit, which may be ordered by itself. Cafe Formaggio's menu can be a challenge to navigate, filled with rococo dishes with invented names such as "salmon Trapani" and "shrimp Mona Lisa." The ingredients, though, are good, the kitchen generally skilled, the portions more than copious. Order simply and you should eat well, leaving with enough leftovers to sustain you another night -- or two, or three.