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Bella Giovanna!

Savory northern Italian cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere



It's possible there's no culinary tradition more comforting than good Italian cooking. In America, we love it even when it's done badly, or when the ingredients have been watered down into an indistinguishable mush -- think Mom's all-purpose stove-top meat spaghetti sauce.

Lucky for us, most every American city now boasts at least one authentic Italian restaurant where we can savor the real thing without forking over airfare to Milan.

In Colorado Springs, that place is Caf Giovanna.

Formerly located in a tiny downtown storefront, Caf Giovanna moved last September to the Garden of the Gods Road corridor, apparently the city's new, up-and-coming commercial strip. And despite the strip mall appearance from the outside, the new location is a distinct improvement on the old place. With more seating, more volume and more turnover, Chef Giovanna Fenati can now offer customers far more choices at better prices.

But Giovanna's could be located in a converted Arby's in Fountain and her restaurant would still be distinguishable from most by the quality of the food. Hers is northern Italian cooking at its best, and it doesn't come much better than that.

A recent lunch at Caf Giovanna found me caught in a sudden snow storm, sipping hot minestrone in the warm caf while sheets of the white stuff engulfed the parking lot outside. Giovanna's version of Italian vegetable soup is not tomato-based, like the canned stuff, but is a rich, golden broth with carrots, celery and potatoes, accented with whole wilted spinach leaves, and flavored with fresh Parmesan and herbs. My waiter, a cheerful Italian man from Rimini, just south of Giovanna's native Ravenna, recommended a glass of hearty Tuscan Sangiovese to go with the soup, and the combination of flavors was just right.

The lunch special was tagliolini, a long thin pasta, topped with chicken breast rolled with proscuitto, then sliced into pinwheels and sauted in olive oil with plentiful slivers of fresh garlic, a bargain at $7. The entire dish was doused generously with fresh Parmesan and fresh chopped parsley. The chicken was tender and smoky, but heaven waited at the bottom of the bowl where the tagliolini swam in the mingled pan juices.

Dessert beckoned -- I had a good book to read and the weather prevailed -- so tiramisu it was, the best I've ever eaten, served with a steaming cup of dark Italian roast coffee. Giovanna's version of the well-known dessert features a housemade zabaglione -- eggs, cream and Marsala wine beaten together into a sweet cream filling -- and is topped with unsweetened cocoa. The result is not too sweet, and remarkably, is light, as the name suggests it should be (tiramisu means "lift me up").

Five dollars will get you a cup of minestrone and a sandwich, or a cup of soup and a salad at lunch. Other entrees, all priced between $6.50 and $7.95, include Tagliatelle con Bolognese, a long, flat pasta with Giovanna's superb traditional meat sauce; and Sedanini al Pesto di Funghi Porcini, a short tube pasta with porcini mushroom pesto.

This lunch visit was prompted by a recent family dinner at Caf Giovanna, occasioned by a visit from an out-of-town friend. On that evening, six of us feasted for two hours on items from the dinner menu which changes monthly.

We shared two exquisite appetizers -- mild housemade buffalo mozzarella ($7.50), served on a platter with slices of apple and mandarin oranges on a bed of greens; and Cervo Marinato ($9.95), marinated venison loin, seared and served on a bed of wilted winter greens with a hearty Gorgonzola cream sauce. Both were flavorful, and the proportions were adequate for all of us to share.

Around the table, we enjoyed a fragrant and colorful bouquet of entrees. My favorite dish was the Filetto di Maiale in Salsa Vellutata ($17.95) -- fresh Colorado raised pork tenderloin pan seared and served with a rich, red wine Gorgonzola cream sauce. Two of our party ordered the excellent lamb of the day, redolent with garlic and beautifully presented on a plate of polenta and sauted greens. The vegetarian in our group appreciated the dish with the longest name on the menu -- Coppa di Spinaci ripena di Fagioli Cannellini al Burro di Rosemarino servata su Salsa di Pepperoni Rossi ($16.95) -- and entertained us all by ordering it literally, in its entirety. The lovely dish turned out to be spinach cups, stuffed with cannellini beans and served with rosemary butter and roaster red pepper sauce.

Service is generally excellent at Caf Giovanna, but don't expect to be served conveyor belt style -- the food and the mood are Italian, and that means sit and savor. If you want to be assured a table, be sure to call for reservations in advance. I noticed a bit of impatience on the part of some of my fellow diners (people laden with beepers and cell phones), especially at lunch, but our waiter valiantly smoothed over the rough spots.

My advice: Don't go to Caf Giovanna if you're in a hurry, because you will risk missing the essential pleasure of eating there -- the comfort of all those fine, melded flavors combined with genuine Italian warmth and hospitality. Take your time. You won't be disappointed.

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