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

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.


In consideration of how we voice our opinions in the modern world, we’ve closed comments on our websites. We value the opinions of our readers and we encourage you to keep the conversation going.

Please feel free to share your story tips by emailing editor@bellevuereporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.bellevuereporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) We reserve the right to edit letters, but if you keep yours to 300 words or less, we won’t ask you to shorten it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More in Business

Stock photo
Grocery store workers have right to wear Black Lives Matter buttons

National Labor Relations Board ruling against ban by Kroger-owned QFC, Fred Meyer

Eastside King County restaurant owners discuss challenges with U.S. Rep Suzan DelBene at Pomegranate Bistro in Redmond. (Photo credit: Cameron Sheppard/Sound Publishing)
Restaurant owners discuss labor difficulties with U.S Rep. Suzan DelBene

Experienced service and kitchen staff are reportedly hard to hire as food service reopens.

Dave and Buster's restaurant and entertainment venue looks to hire 130 people to staff its Bellevue venue, set to open in August. Photo courtesy Dave and Busters.
Dave and Buster’s hiring 130 for August opening in Bellevue

Dave and Buster’s restaurant and entertainment venue opens in downtown Bellevue on… Continue reading

Best of Bellevue 2021 winners have been announced.
Best of Bellevue 2021 winners

Categories range from shopping and restaurants to favorite elected officials.

Images of dishes from Issaquah’s Umi Cafe posted on the SMORS page. (Photo courtesy of Kristen Ho)
Facebook page promotes minority-owned restaurants across Puget Sound region

Miya Nazzaro used to be a member of Facebook pages that were… Continue reading

The Moe Vegan food truck serves meals at the city of Kent’s annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner on Nov. 21, 2020. Sound Publishing file photo
King County fire marshals offer regulatory relief to food trucks

39 fire authorities have reportedly agreed to standardize fire codes and inspections.

Vote today at https://vote.bellevuereporter.com
Vote today for the Best of Bellevue

Our annual Best of Bellevue reader poll is one of the more… Continue reading

Sandwich selection at Tres Sandwich House (photo credit: Cameron Sheppard)
Bellevue’s Tres Sandwich House offers popular Japanese-style sandwiches

The shop is one of the only places to try the sandwiches outside of Japan.

Cash Cards Unlimited partners, left: Nick Nugwynne, right: Cassius Marsh (photo credit: Cash Cards Unlimited)
Former Seahawks player Cassius Marsh cashes in on trading cards

Marsh and his friend open physical and online trading card store as collectibles boom amid pandemic.

Teaser
First large-scale, human composting facility in the world will open in Auburn

“It’s what nature meant us to do. We just do it faster.”

Eastside Media Group General Manager William Shaw
Who is the best of Bellevue?

You can vote for your favorite local businesses starting on April 1.

Whole Foods grocery store entrance (Shutterstock)
King County considers grocery store worker hazard pay for those in unincorporated areas

The King County Metropolitan Council will vote during its next meeting on… Continue reading