Lights off and doors closed for good, Feb. 9 marked the Laughing Cat Bistro’s last day in Ybor City. A longtime Italian staple in the area, Laughing Cat was frequented for its lunch buffet and generous dinner portions.
But diners shouldn't fret. They haven’t seen the last of executive chef Franco LoRe, or his cooking. They'll just have to travel a little farther south.
Former Laughing Cat owners LoRe and Jerry Kistler had Caffe Italia, a new Riverview eatery at 10277 Big Bend Road, open for business by Feb. 26, not even a month after parting with Laughing Cat.
According to Kistler, Laughing Cat was met with “ups and downs” that it always overcame. However, “Ybor’s slowing down,” he said, and the nearly 14-year-old restaurant “couldn’t get through it this time.”
The restaurant started out in 2000 along North 15th Street, establishing itself as one of Ybor’s go-to take-out joints. Two years later, it moved into a larger building across the street, the historic El Encanto Cleaners space, at the southwest corner of East Eighth Avenue and North 15th Street.
Laughing Cat relocated again in 2011, setting up shop at Eighth Avenue and 15th Street's southeast corner until its closing.
Kistler said Caffe Italia allowed him and LoRe to return to their roots. At times, Kistler couldn’t have conversations with diners, which he enjoys, because Laughing Cat was too swamped.
Outfitted with 10 tables, Caffe Italia is more intimate than Laughing Cat, for diners and staff.
“Big place, big problems,” Kistler said. “Small place, small problems.”
LoRe is still serving up traditional Italian cuisine, but unlike the extensive options that Laughing Cat offered, Caffe Italia’s menu is shorter.
With specials every week, according to Kistler, several Laughing Cat entrées, such as Penne Valentino (penne with eggplant and prosciutto) and Chicken Yolanda (chicken breast stuffed with Italian sausage, red peppers and provolone), have followed LoRe to his latest kitchen stopping grounds.
Other fare includes appetizers, soups, desserts and classics like chicken parm, chicken marsala and cheese-stuffed tortellini carbonara.
Diners may also order pizza — including specialties like roasted duck or pesto pies, even Sicilian-style and stuffed — but only to-go.
If chowhounds bring their own wine glasses, or bottle, to dine-in, the restaurant will waive its corkage fee. Otherwise, the fee is $10 per bottle.