A trip to Firenze Ristorante Italiano is like stepping through a portal into Italy. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

Firenze Ristorante Italiano offers patrons a personal experience in Bellevue

Deep in the hustle and bustle of the Crossroads area of Bellevue, surrounded by cookie-cutter, big-box stores, lies one business that is a bit different.

Upon walking in the door, one leaves the world of American strip malls and enters a little piece of the city that was the birthplace of the Renaissance — Florence, Italy.

This year marks 25 years that Firenze Ristorante Italiano — named for the Italian name for Florence — has provided an old-world oasis to the modern, nonstop suburban outdoors.

Proprietor Salvatore “Sal” Lembo takes great pride in filling Firenze Ristorante — as well as his other eatery, Marianna in Renton — with only the most authentic pieces of Italy.

“We bake the bread every morning, with a recipe from Sicily,” Sal explains, gesturing at a basket of warm, aromatic bread next to bottles of olive oil and vinegar.

Paintings of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence grace the walls and the rich tenor of Andrea Bocelli plays over the loudspeaker, softly setting the scene of the restaurant. A glass chandelier and mango gelato-colored walls create the illusion of eating in the bottom floor of a Roman palazzo-turned-restaurant.

Along the back wall is an impressive selection of Italian wines, including Le Mura, a Sangiovese/Merlot blend made from grapes grown on Sal’s own property outside of Florence.

But it is not only the authentic environment of the restaurant that has kept customers from across the Eastside coming back for a quarter of a century. A trip to Firenze Ristorante is an extremely personal experience.

This is not the kind of business where the owner hides away in a back office, letting his underlings do all of the work; Sal is out front every night greeting his customers and engaging them in conversation. Whenever people ask him what he recommends they order, he never picks the priciest items on the menu, but instead chooses his personal preferences.

“People ask, ‘What’s your favorite?’” he said. “I don’t go for what’s expensive, I go for what’s my favorite.”

Sal can regularly be seen dining in the restaurant himself, speaking a mix of English and Italian at a long table filled with his family and friends. Often times, he will go beyond just conversing with his patrons, and will ask them to join his table. On the day of his interview, Sal was enjoying the post-lunchtime lull with a table full of friends from Italy, family members and a brand-new friend who had just come into the restaurant for the first time that day on his lunch break.

“I ask my customers, ‘Would you like to join my table?’ It’s kind of my payback,” Sal described. “I enjoy it, I’m eating, I’m having fun.”

Even the names of Sal’s restaurants convey a personal touch; Firenze, or Florence, is Lembo’s hometown, and Marianna is the name of his mother, who still lives in Italy.

It’s that warm, family aspect of Firenze Ristorante that keeps not only the clientele, but also the employees around.

“The family environment is different than everywhere else I have worked,” said David Soto, who has been a server at Firenze for five years.

Sal, in turn, is thankful to be surrounded by so many wonderful people. It is his Firenze Ristorante family that has made the business a wonderful experience, even through tough times such as the 2008 economic recession.

“You have no idea how lucky I am … eight to 10 years ago, after the recession, I got hurt. It hurts me,” Sal said. “But I meet friends, I’m proud of my food, I love it.”

Sal’s 25-year-old daughter Valentina Lembo, who works as a server at Firenze, said that she has spent so much time in her dad’s restaurant growing up that she “might as well have been born here.”

“I was here all the time — after school, before school, during school,” Valentina laughed. “I’ve literally spent five days a week here for 25 years.”

She added that when she’s not working, she often comes to the restaurant to spend time with her Firenze family.

“Even on my days off it’s a piece of me,” she said. “I enjoy having lots of friends I meet here, even if they’re just friends for a day or for 20 years.”

And aficionados of true Italian cuisine and European flair travel from across the Eastside and the Seattle area for the Firenze Ristorante experience. Sal said that some of his best regular customers come from Issaquah, Sammamish, Redmond, Kirkland and Renton.

“This is one of the best places to eat on the Eastside. There is no better Italian restaurant,” said Ilija Orlovic, who has been coming to Firenze since 2005 and was seated at Sal’s table of family and friends on the day of the interview. “It has a more European feel. It’s more work to live than live to work.”

Firenze Ristorante is located at 15600 NE Eighth St., Bellevue. For more information or to make a reservation, call 425-957-1077.

Firenze Ristorante owner Salvatore Lembo serves bread made from his ancestors’ recipe in Sicily. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

Every one of Sal’s recipes has come from his homeland of Italy. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

A new favorite menu item at the restaurant is this panozze, a word invented by Sal by combining the words pana, meaning bread, with pizza. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

The restaurant gives off the feel of a Florentine palazzo. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

Depictions of the city of Florence decorate the walls. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

The large wine selection includes wine made on Sal’s own property near Florence. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

At Firenze Ristorante, everyone is a family. From left, cook Jose Alvarez, owner Sal Lembo, his daughter Valentina, cook Francis Vidal and server David Soto. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

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