When traveling I always try to find authentic little local Italian places rather than the big chain restaurants. Nothing wrong with Olive Garden and Carrabba's....(actually, there is, but that's a topic for another article.)
If you're anywhere near Orange Park, Florida, do yourself a favor and visit Ristorante Sarnelli’s.
First of all, they speak Italian there, a big plus for me when I rate an Italian restaurant. One of my favorite little games is to go into any Italian place that bills itself as “authentic” and ask for a menu – in Italian. If the hostess looks at me like I’ve grown a third eye, I walk out. If she smiles and hands me a menu, I make a reservation. I did this at a little place in North Carolina once. The young man at the door said, “I can understand you, sir, but I don’t speak Italian.” I gave him points for “close enough” and subsequently had a great meal there.
Next, the ambiance is very nice. Small and intimate, this is a great place for a romantic evening or for friends to meet for dinner. Not much of a place to take your seven screaming kids, but that’s okay by me. The décor is authentic without being overstated. No plastic checkered tablecloths here; crisp white linen all the way.
This is also a very friendly place. No stuffed shirts. Everybody is nice from the person who greets you at the door all the way through the wait staff. They are solicitous without being intrusive. They are also very efficient, keeping the glasses full and the courses moving in order.
I was especially impressed by the nice Italian lady who kept watch over us. She seemed delighted when I commented on our food in Italian, and when I said, “Mi piacerebbe avere la ricetta,” she absolutely beamed. I found out later that this was the owner, Rosaria Sarnelli.
And what can I say about the food? Il cibo è fantastico! A varied menu of great Italian-American cuisine, some delicious authentic Italian fare, and a delectable assortment of daily specials.
We were a party of three, in town for business. We all went for pretty basic stuff; my wife ordered the spaghetti with meatballs, I chose a spaghetti carbonara, and our guest had the lasagna. We sampled around a little and all agreed that everything was delicious. We also all agreed that, due to the ample portions, there was no room for dessert, a real shame, because there were some good looking dolci to choose from. The tiramisu and the New York-style cheesecake were especially tempting. All this and at reasonable prices, too. We rang up about $60 for three people.
Ristorante Sarnelli’s is easy to find. It's on a main highway not too far off the interstate. There is adequate parking, and reservations are accepted. This is not a shorts and t-shirt kind of place. Business casual is good, but you would not feel overdressed if you went a notch higher.
Ristorante Sarnelli's is a must, even if you're just going past Orange Park on the interstate. Next time business or pleasure takes me to the Jacksonville area you'll probably run into me there.
2023 Park Ave
Orange Park, FL 32073