Ask Lake Wales residents where to go for an extraordinary meal and they’ll likely point you to a quaint, done-up dining space off of Highway 60. L’incontro Italian Restaurant opened on January 14, 2011, bringing old-world, traditional Italian cuisine to The Ridge.
We sat with the owner and general manager, Alex Barrera at lunch one afternoon to discuss the secret to their success. The lighting was dim and dreamy, tables were fully set with a carnation resting in a freshly filled vase of chilled water. The wait staff were dressed immaculately and tended to guests in the same fashion. Beyond the ambient main dining area is enclosed outdoor seating for a more private, scenic dining experience. Hungry patrons began filing into the upscale-casual eatery for a mid-afternoon meal.
L’incontro is family owned and operated by Barrera and his uncle, Chef Jose Uzhca. Barrera’s family, including his four uncles, are all culinary-minded.
“Our family has been in the food industry for a very long time,” said Barrera. Immigrating from Ecuador in the mid 60s, his four uncles went on to lead accomplished careers within the food space, either working as Italian cuisine chefs or owning restaurants of their own. One of Chef Jose’s brothers established his restaurant in Lake Alfred, Luigi’s, and another retired from a restaurant of the same appellation, Trattoria L’incontro in Astoria, New York.
Chef Jose, the youngest of four brothers, began cooking at just 17 years old. His resumé boasts some 25 years of perfecting the craft at restaurants Jardino, Novanta, Vivolo, IL Sogno, La Pergola di Taormina, Cafe Fiorello and the Mandarin Oriental in New York City. Chef Jose has had the opportunity to present dishes to some of the most high-profile people in the world, including the President of France, Oprah Winfrey and more.
Barrera himself is no rookie on the culinary scene – always working in one form or another in the restaurant industry. Around 14 years old, Alex began washing dishes in restaurants, eventually working his way up to busboy, runner, server, manager and expediter. His background specializes in Japanese restaurants. He started at the renown Nobu Japanese restaurant as a busser, eventually becoming an expediter.
Made to order, using traditional recipes and cooking methods, the dishes on L’incontro’s menu span regions and generations of the old country.
“Our menu is a very old menu,” he said. The restaurant pays homage to old-world tradition with dishes from puttanesca to piccata. There is no gimmick, no spin – just Italian cuisine as it was intended, according to Barrera.
What is any good Italian eatery without its marinara? As an anchor to many menu items, having the perfect sauce is paramount, and L’incontro has perfected it. “Everybody says it’s in the sauce,” said Barrera.
Other popular menu items include mussels and clams served with garlic oil, as well as mozzarella caprese, and their famous spaghetti bolognese. “It’s a little twist on spaghetti meat sauce, we just add a little cream. Some people aren’t aware, but that’s what ‘bolognese’ means – it’s from Bologna in Italy and you add cream. It makes a huge difference,” said Barrera.
Even more special is what you won’t find on the menu. Every night, L’incontro presents Chef Recommendations. Lake Wales residents are addicted to the String Bean Salad – a simple dish made with string beans, red onions, homemade mozzarella cubes, tossed in a homemade Italian vinaigrette. Their Chef Recommendation Stuffed Pork Chop Barrera described as a Frenched, bone-in pork chop elevated in flavor by prosciutto, goat cheese, raisins, cranberries, candied apples, wrapped in bacon and finished with a truffle mushroom Marsala sauce. This dish is in such demand that it makes the special menu at least once a week.
Fancy a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon with your spaghetti bolognese? The restaurant offers a selection of wine and beer along with the addition of a full bar in January earlier this year. You can enjoy lunch or dinner service at L’incontro seven days a week. Dinner reservations are recommended. Stay tuned to their social media or join their newsletter to be in the loop for special events like wine pairings and live music.
Maybe it’s the food or the service that has won over the community, or perhaps the secret sauce is in the name “L’incontro.” A date night, business meeting, or a family gathering are all done best at “The Meeting Place.”
L’incontro Italian Restaurant
35 FL-60, Lake Wales