For Walter Knowles, food is a bonding agent between families and communities.
He drew upon that philosophy when developing his latest restaurant, Al Di La Italian Bistro, at the corner of Spring Hill Drive and Mariner Boulevard.
Al Di La, which means beyond, opened for business three weeks ago after months of preparation to make the eatery a memorable experience.
Knowles wanted to capture the heart of an Italian café, market and bakery that customers would return to again and again.
“It was always my dream to have a deli and Italian market,” he said.
He began with a hand-crafted, customized counter top and artistic backdrop depicting an Italian scene, guiding visitors into a café you might find in Sicily.
He filled a glass case with Italian treats, from traditional cannolis to butter cookies dipped in chocolate to Italian pastries and delicacies. Fresh Italian breads and rolls are also available, each baked fresh daily by the bakery chef, Michael Ethier.
And shelves are filled with dried pastas, cooking oils, wines, spices and other products, completing the market scene.
But Al Di La Italian Bistro’s main focus is a restaurant, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Many of the dishes are blended to depict classics from different areas of Italy.
Knowles has more of a Sicilian style. His chef, Alan Clapsaddle, brings more northern traditions to the menu.
Alvin said the restaurant uses all fresh ingredients to hand craft entrees, desserts, and baked goods in what he described as a “scratch kitchen.” He serves imported chocolate sauces that are slow simmered and meats for Cacciatore and pot roast cooked on the bone.
Knowles’ background is in restaurant ownership and authentic Italian cuisine. Of Italian decent, he grew up in New York around Italian cooks.
He owns an Italian restaurant in Tallahassee and another, Westshore Pizza, at the entrance to Glen Lakes.
Tom Richmond of Spring Hill didn’t let the Al Di La settle in to the landscape before giving it a try. A very critical fan of Italian cuisine, Richmond ordered the panini.
“It was fantastic,” he said. He returned the next day to purchase baked goods from the market.
“And they even deliver,” he added.
Al Di La is in a corner spot where several restaurants had come and gone over the years. The most recent had been an upscale Italian restaurant that attracted diners to the outside patio.
Al Di La will use the outside patio, part of which is covered, for dining. He plans to add live entertainment as the restaurant’s reputation grows.
“We’re trying not to be like everyone else,” said Knowles. “We have some of the same staples but we also offer a lot of different choices not found anywhere else.”
His idea was to keep it as close to the authentic experience as possible, even for those who have never traveled to Italy.
“We put everything on our menu in Italian names with explanations in English,” Knowles said. “Our Cacciatore is slow-cooked on the bone the way Grandma used to make.”
Al Di La’s team includes many who have been friends for years. Johnny Velez and Chris Martini were responsible for gutting and renovating the interior.
The team of servers and support help were picked to represent a professional and friendly atmosphere.
“We had a vision,” Knowles said. “I tried real hard and (Clapsaddle) tried real hard. And here we are.”
Email Hernando Today correspondent Kim Dame at email@example.com.