Libretto's: More than a Pizzeria

by Anna Rabhan
It is nearly impossible for a restaurant to be all things to all people- family-friendly eatery, late-night weekend hangout, lunch-rush oasis, tasty and convenient- but somehow Libretto’s Pizzeria & Italian Kitchen has done it ( It probably has a lot to do with the love.
Owner Mike Libretto’s family has been in the New York restaurant business for over 30 years. Ten years ago, he opened Libretto’s using family recipes. “The marinara is made the way my Grandmother always made it,” says Libretto. “The meatballs are made exactly as Mom would make them every Sunday.” Now Libretto has brought that same sense of tradition and togetherness to dining in Jacksonville at the St. Johns Town Center with the opening of his fourth location in December 2010.
Sadly, one doesn’t read much about the atmosphere in restaurants these days because there generally isn’t much of one. Not so at Libretto’s, partly because the uber-friendly staff clearly loves the food themselves and genuinely likes being there. Manager Heather Carbonaro, herself a New York native who started in the restaurant business washing dishes as a 12-year-old, says, “We all spend so much time here… last night I was here until 5:20 in the morning- we had a line for pizza out the door- it’s like, ‘Why not be a family?’ [The staff] are like my sisters and brothers.” The old family photos, including some of Libretto’s family, add to the coziness of the place.
The restaurant is also one of the most inclusive I’ve ever seen. There are TVs on the walls and everything from wings to pizza for the enjoyment of groups of friends out together to watch a football game or lunch patrons seeking a quick bite; there is a wall of booth seating in the dining room and a kids menu for families; and there are smaller booths and candlelight, not to mention entrees perfect for sharing, for couples out for a romantic evening. And yet, the place doesn’t feel like three separate restaurants.
I usually don’t choose Italian when dining out simply because I’ve so often been disappointed by sauce that’s too sweet, overly salty entrees, and a limited menu. I found none of that at Libretto’s. My dining companion and I started with the mozzarella fritte and the stuffed mushrooms. The mozzarella sticks are made fresh every day and are thick cuts of good, firm mozzarella perfectly seasoned and fried just enough for that little bit of crispness. They are also at that place of mozzarella stick perfection- not too greasy and not too dry. The marinara was, quite possibly, the best I’ve ever had- not too sweet or salty, and neither too overprocessed nor too chunky. The stuffed mushrooms were just as delightful. The mushroom caps themselves were clearly fresh, which makes all the difference. The cream sauce was subtle enough to let the flavors of the ricotta and the Italian sausage come through, and the mere dusting of bread crumb on top provided a nice texture without overwhelming the dish.
I had heard about how Mike Libretto grew up eating his father’s homemade, hand-rolled meatballs, so that was next on the list of things to try. Whatever you do, do not leave Libretto’s without trying these amazing balls of meat heaven! The three substantial meatballs came topped and skirted with more of the delicious marinara and sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan and fresh parsley. The meat was very finely ground. The meatballs were moist and tender and would have been plenty flavorful all on their own.
My dining companion ordered the chicken francese in an effort to try one of the many Libretto’s dishes that you don’t normally see on the menu at Italian restaurants in Jacksonville. While he would have enjoyed just a touch more lemon flavor in the otherwise delicious white wine and butter sauce, the egg-battered and sautéed, rather than breaded and fried, chicken made it a lighter option. He still had leftovers, though, which made the $12.95 seem even more modest. The chicken was juicy, and the accompanying pasta (he had chosen linguine) was dense and cooked to the perfect texture.
The chicken parm pizza I ordered was thankfully not the seven-pound brick I’ve found at other places. The crust was thin, but still fluffy. The cheese was baked into the crust, which really amplifies the flavor, the sauce was applied with a light hand, and the chicken parm pieces were bite-sized and scrumptious. The personal is the perfect entrée size and is very reasonable at $10.95. The quality of the ingredients and the care the kitchen staff takes with them really comes through. My dining companion joked that it has something to do with the water, but Carbonaro later confirmed, “We let the water for the dough settle before we filter it.” We honestly can’t wait to go back and try some of the other pizzas and calzones and the really unusual items, like the pepper and egg hero, that are on the menu.
The fact that they were out of their homemade tiramisu gives me another fabulous reason to go back, but while Libretto’s cannoli, plated on a chocolate drizzle and sprinkled with powdered sugar, is a very good chocolate chip cream affair, the true test of an “authentic New York City Italian kitchen” dessert is its New York-style cheesecake. Libretto’s is stellar. They let it “rest” for eight hours and it is mouthwateringly creamy. Neither of us could remember ever having a lighter, more moist cheesecake on a crust that was quite as buttery. The presentation, with the wedge plated on a raspberry drizzle and garnished with sliced strawberry and a mint sprig, was very pleasing. My dining companion could hardly stop repeating, “The cheesecake is to die for!” Accompanied by a cappuccino with just the right amount of steamed milk and foam, it put the perfect polish on an outstanding Italian meal.
If it’s true what Carbonaro says, “Food is love,” then you will fall in love with Libretto’s Pizzeria & Italian Kitchen.