Here’s a restaurant that’ll take you straight to the streets of Florence, Italy, even though it’s located just five minutes from Microsoft. That’s because Firenze Ristorante gets its namesake from its direct translation, “Florence Restaurant.” And let me tell you, the translation is no lie.
Firenze opened in 1992, and may be the best Italian restaurant in Bellevue. The place has been a favorite of many Italian locals and also a large diversity of clientele from celebrities to just plain old lovers of Italian food. Pictures of actors and actresses don the walls offering thanks and the atmosphere is intoxicating.
Patrons often hear Italian around the restaurant as Italians frequent the spot, and listen as the owner proudly jokes and entertains in his native language.
From the moment I entered the “Ristorante,” I could feel the change. The first thing I noticed is the scent of garlic and herbs that make you crave genuine Italian pasta. As I looked around, I noticed the Italian-looking stucco walls combined with the candlelit dining room. Once I became fully immersed in this little Italy, a smiling Italian man warmly greeted me in Italian and sat me at my new temporary paradise.
This man is actually Salvatore Lembo, the owner and operator of Firenze Ristorante, and if his accent doesn’t convince you he’s the real deal, his story certainly will. Born and raised in Italy himself, he feels obligated to make sure every customer experiences exactly what he did growing up. Most of employees have been there for at least 10 years. Executive chef, Rosendo Ruiz, has an impressive 24 years of experience under his belt at Firenze, and is now co-owner at Lembo’s other ristorante, Marianna in Renton.
Many of his recipes are straight from the streets of Tuscany, the city Lembo grew up in. Born in Sicily in 1961, Lembo’s family moved to Tuscany in 1968. Though he is a proud Sicilian at heart, most of his culinary influences hail from his family and beautiful Toscana. If what you find on your plate isn’t something his mother made for him as a child, it will certainly be inspired by something he ate before he came to America.
Don’t worry if the word “authentic” makes you think you won’t know anything on the menu, as this restaurant definitely provided the full array of what I expect from an Italian restaurant; mozzarella and garlic bread can and were consumed in infinite proportions.
“Almost all of our ingredients are flown in from Italy,” Lembo said. “Everything including the flour and spices are brought here so we can have the best of the best. We use anything authentic we can get our hands on because something amazing happens when you use bona fide ingredients.”
Each item on the menu is listed first in its traditional Italian name, and second in an English description. Thankfully for me, the descriptions were English words that I actually knew the meaning of. “Thin-sliced filet mignon” is something I can understand.
I ended up going with the “Carpaccio,” or “Filet mignon thin sliced, capers, dijon mustard, extra virgin olive oil. Lemon.” My server was very professional and attentive, but not too intrusive. He informed me that because everything is prepared when ordered, and not in advance, the meal might take longer than I expect. Well, he was certainly mistaken, as my food came out in perfect time as I finished my mozzarella caprese salad.
The steak was still steaming when it was put in front of me. My first bite confirmed what Lembo said about authentic Italian ingredients. The meat quite literally melted in my mouth, and I don’t know if it could have been seasoned better. My pasta days are over; Firenze sold me on the meat. The only downside was that it was somewhat small for me, and I was almost tempted to order more food just to try another one of Lembo’s dishes. I made up for this by indulging in one of the most amazing tiramisus I have ever had the pleasure to try, though in the future I may stick with a variety of small bites of whatever desserts the servers recommend.
Other dishes came highly recommended, and my food editor and traveling companion had the Tagliata alla Fiorentina, which is a rib eye steak thinly sliced thin and topped with Modena Balsamic and fresh arugula. It melted in his mouth. We both wanted to order the Filetto al Cognac, a two-inch thick seared filet finished in a cognac cream sauce but there was just no room! Lembo assured me I simply must try Spaghetti all'Aragosta
Every day seems to host different specialties, such as Rack of Lamb, Venison, Ossobuco, Rabbit, and two or three options for seafood daily. Lembo’s own lobster tail in a light saffron and tomato sauce tempts me now just thinking about it. This is not just a pasta place, they make steaks using a cooking method passed down from his great great grandfather and it shows.
If after your entire meal, you know this place is the realest Italian in Bellevue, wait ‘till you try the wine from their expansive top shelf selection. It turns out that Lembo personally owns his own Italian wine vineyards and grows his grapes independently. Nothing was more satisfying than knowing that my glass of red wine was made by a real Italian man instead of in a massive wine factory.
“My dedication to my wine just shows how much I care about this restaurant. That’s why I’m always there. I don’t ever want to think that a visitor to my version of Italy wasn't given the best I could give,” Lembo said, before he ran back to his kitchen to prepare whatever plate was next.
At the end of my meal, I knew I’d be back. From the professional yet family-like service to possibly the most authentic foreign restaurant experience I’ve had in all, I highly recommend Firenze Ristorante in Bellevue. You can find them at 15600 NE 8th Street in Bellevue. Expect to have no trouble parking, as the restaurant is located outside Crossroads Mall next to the cinema, where there is plenty of free parking always available.
The single disadvantage is that waits may be long because of the amount of people trying to get a taste, so I highly recommend making a reservation early by visiting the Firenze Restaurant website or calling them at 425-957-1077.
If you’re looking to grab breakfast before heading to Firenze Ristorante for dinner later in the day, I recommend trying Little John’s restaurant in East gate. It is another impressively authentic American experience if you’re visiting Bellevue. However, if you’re deciding on eating at Firenze Ristorante for dinner, pass on Little Johns make room for dinner.