Myrtle Beach is lucky the Toniolo family picked our area for the second location of their Italian restaurant called Stefano's Cucina Rustica. They've owned the first location of the same name in Florence for 19 years.
The owners are Steve and Anna Toniolo, and their 23-year-old son, Steve, is the general manager of the new eatery, which is in Carolina Forest. Steve is a recent college grad with a business degree.
Stefano's has a warm décor with colors of a Tuscan sunset: umber, sienna, misty green. Low metal ceiling fans and lights have a terra cotta hue, and arches that peek into the kitchen lend an old-world air. Classic Italian music plays, and it was the first time I heard "Volare" in Italian.
The vintage theme fits with the heirloom family recipes the Toniolos use, like their marinara and meat sauce that's rich and thick and sweetly peppery from fresh herbs and spices.
Meals start with a fresh and warm mini bread loaf. The server brings a white dish with a resting place for a spoon containing freshly minced garlic and herbs. At the table the server pours olive oil into the dish and mixes in the spoonful of flavorings to create fresh dipping oil.
From 11 am to 3 pm there is a special lunch menu. For $ 7 diners have a choice of Lasagna, Chicken Tortellini, Chicken Parmesan, Spaghetti, Fettucine Alfredo, Cheese Ravioli or Baked Rigatoni, and they come with a choice of soup or salad, plus that wonderful bread (which is baked fresh daily at Benjamin's Bakery in Surfside Beach). There are also lunch specials, and the day I visited it was Stuffed Peppers.
But you do not have to stick to the lunch menu at midday, because the regular menu is available for lunch or dinner. There are Paninis like Da Wise Guy with salami, capicola and mozzarella, or The Leaning Tower of Pizza with pepperoni, sausage, tomatoes and mozzarella. Classic Hot Subs are also listed, like a Philly Cheesesteak and a Parmigiana Sub with meatballs, sausage, eggplant and chicken.
Some people were enjoying the pizzas, which can come with gourmet toppings like meatballs, portabello mushrooms, roasted red peppers and plum tomatoes. There are also small and large Stromboli, and Stuffed Pizzas like Chicken and Broccoli, the Venice Veggie and a Bacon Double Cheeseburger.
Stefano's has wings (mild, medium, hot, extreme or teriyaki) and salads including Antipasto, Buffalo Chicken, Buffalo Shrimp, Fried Tortellini and Fried Calamari.
Appetizers are lavish, such as Broccoli Cheddar Puffs, Fried Calimari, Provolone Fritta (fried provolone with marinara) and Caprese (fresh mozzarella and tomato slices drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and garnished with fresh basil). I tried the wonderful Toasted Crab Dip Ravioli, where ravioli are stuffed with a savory crab dip, fried 'til crispy and served with Alfredo dipping sauce.
Many of the entrees are what you'd expect, and they come in strict portions. There are Lasagna Al Forno, Ravioli Di Quattro Formaggi (four cheeses), Manicotti, Parmigiana Alla Sorrentina with chicken, eggplant or veal, and Chicken or Veal Marsala.
I tried the Canneloni, which are pasta sheets stuffed and roled with ground beef, pork, veal, spinach and four cheeses, and then baked and served with toppings of mozzarella and meat sauce. It was hearty and flavorful, and I could eat only a third of it. My husband enjoyed the rest for his dinner.
You can also order Personalized Pasta, where you have a choice of pastas, a choice of sauces and you select from a variety of toppings.
A few chicken entrees include Pollo Fumigata, or Smothered Chicken; Pollo Tuscana (lemony); and Rigatoni Raggiata, which means Angry Rigatoni and is a hearty dish with pasta, chicken, Italian sausage, banana peppers and Alfresco Sauce. On the beef list are Bistecca Pizzaiola (a smothered ribeye), and Bistecca Toscana (marinated ribeye). There is a Fish of the Day, plus Gamberi Marinara (gamberi are shrimp), Lobster Ravioli and Tesoro Di Mare (shrimp and scallops on fettucine with Alfredo sauce).
For dessert there are a couple of cheesecakes, tiramisu and cannoli.
The service is warm, friendly and efficient. I was even satisfied by servers waiting to other tables, and appreciated that my leftovers were boxed up for me at the table. This is a great date spot or family restaurant, and I'm guessing Carolina Forest residents will be grateful to have a spot such as this to dine at where they do not have to get out in major traffic.
Stefano's Cucina Rustica is at 2005 Oak Heart Road, in the shopping center on the Piggly Wiggly side of Carolina Forest Boulevard. The number is 903-7238, and they're open 11 am to 10 pm Mondays through Fridays, until 11 pm Fridays and Saturdays and from noon to 9 pm Sundays.