Last Friday night was popping at DiGiorgio’s Café Largo, which celebrated its 30-year anniversary last month.
The servers glided out of the kitchen with trays full of crowd favorites: Lasagna al Forno, Gnocchi Bolognese and the yellowtail special. Strains of diners singing “Happy Birthday” could be heard while a couple enjoyed a date night dessert of an espresso martini and tiramisu.
And the Valdes and Espineira families were in high spirits at the bar, their Friday night ritual.
“The food is amazing,” Sonia Espineira told Keys Weekly. “From a 1 to a 10, it’s a 10, 10, 10.”
“I love this place, and my girls, Bella and Mia,” said her husband, Mario, about the DiGiorgio daughters, who grew up working in the restaurant.
“It’s perfect here, from the food to the atmosphere,” said Toro Valdes, with his arm around his wife, Cat.
Bella, a senior at Coral Shores High School and the hostess, watched smiling from the side until the group pulled her in to take a photo.
According to owner Robert DiGiorgio, out of all the recipes that have contributed to his restaurant’s successful run since 1992, the most important one has the following ingredients: family, food and consistent quality. With a heavy sprinkle of hard work.
“We have a staff that’s been here long-term,” Robert said. He stood in the kitchen on the side, so as not to get in the way of the servers and cooks as they hustled entrées out into the dining room. “Chef Jesus Ruvalcaba has been here 10 years. When you keep your core base, you’ve got consistency.
“My job is to get Jesus the best quality ingredients,” he continued, pointing at a stack of flour sacks he imports from Italy to make pasta. “We also have canned plum tomatoes from San Marzano, Italy, and certified Angus beef. So it’s the food, and it’s the family atmosphere.”
Robert’s father, Pasquale “Pat” DiGiorgio, and mother, JoAnn (maiden name Maiani), both came from families who operated South Florida restaurants. Married in 1965, the couple ran their own eatery in Miami, then eventually made their way to Key Largo in 1992, along with Robert and his sister, Gina, who were grown-ups by that time.
Pat and JoAnn had purchased the current property, on which a B&G Goodyear shop stood. The family conducted an eight-month extensive remodel, and on November 4, 1992, Italian restaurant DiGiorgio’s Café Largo was born. The menu was filled with favorites created generations ago by the DiGiorgio and Maiani ancestors in Italy, such as Aunt Francesca’s tiramisu and salad dressing — the only dressing that is served, aside from olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
In 2002, Robert took over the business, and the rest is history — helped along by the hard work of staff and his wife, Angel, and daughters Mia and Bella; the consistent patronage of local clientele; and a sprinkle of stardust from the Food Network TV show called “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” with Guy Fieri.
The famous bleached-blond-and-goateed host stopped by the restaurant to film a segment in 2016. Fieri sampled — and raved over — the entrees that Robert served up. “That’s about as old-school Italian-American as it comes,” he said to the camera, pointing at the Veal Chop Cutlet Florentine.
And you can’t get more Italian-American than sauce. Angel, on a break from her duties at Bayside Grille, which is also owned by the DiGiorgio family, stopped by to chat about this menu staple.
“The sauces are an all-day process,” she said. “All the cooking starts at 10 a.m., and everything is from scratch.”
Diners have three different tomato sauces — or “gravies,” as Italian-Americans call them — to choose from for their pastas. St. Jacques, the creamy, garlicky, breadcrumb-y topping that’s liberally poured atop the scallop appetizer, is another sauce that takes hours of preparation.
The hard work does not go unnoticed.
“Delicious, all the way through,” said the male of the couple who had martinis and Aunt Francesca’s tiramisu.
At that moment, Loretta “Aunt Lo” Dettmann swept in to pick up her son, Danny, and give a giant hug to Bella.
“This is family,” Loretta said.
“We’re here every Friday,” said Mario, as he and Sonia were leaving for the night. “Come back.”
We just might.
DiGiorgio’s Café Largo is located at Mile Marker 99.5, bayside, Key Largo. For more information, call 305-451-4885 or go to www.keylargo-cafelargo.com.