By CHANDRA BROADWATER, Times Staff Writer.
Antonio Cacace, left, cracks an egg into a homemade meatball mixture while Luigi Barile works with spices at Touch of Napoli. The two are originally from Naples, Italy, and started the restaurant six years ago. "I grew up in a restaurant," said Cacace. They serve pizza, heros, a variety of pastas and other dishes native to Naples.
SPRING HILL - The day starts with a shot of rich, dark Italian espresso. Luigi Barile and Antonio Cacace stand beside each other in the kitchen of their restaurant, Touch of Napoli. It's 10:30 on a recent weekday morning.
The traffic outside their strip mall location at Barclay Avenue and Powell Road has yet to clog with people on the prowl for lunch. Across the way is a restaurant called Chicago Eats. Down the road, close to the Suncoast Parkway, there's a Wendy's fast-food spot next to a Publix.
Barile holds the tiny porcelain cup between his thick fingers. Cacace holds his cup up in front of him before bringing it to his lips. They gulp in suit. "Always espresso before I start," Barile says. His Italian accent makes English words sound exotic.
Now, it's time to work.
Just before their morning toast, the 26-year-old Barile set up the cooking line. A chunky tomato sauce heats on the gas stove, as flames peek out from beneath the large pot. Stock for the saute dishes is warming, too. On the counter, he has placed bins of freshly chopped parsley the Italian flat-leaf variety, of course, grated Parmesan, minced garlic soaking in a pool of golden olive oil, and the salt and pepper.
Cacace, 31, has busied himself with making the day's bread. One by one, he cuts off squares of dough and shapes them into longer loaves. Looking over the rims of his glasses, he dusts the loaves with flour, then slides them into the oven with a wooden paddle.
Next he prepares the meatball mixture that Barile will later massage with his hands. Several pounds of pink ground meat are topped with one cracked egg after another. Then the Parmesan cheese goes in - then the parsley and salt and pepper, followed by bread crumbs.
But first they must grind day-old bread. They assemble in the back of the kitchen, where an industrial-size mixer is converted into a crust-crushing monster. Barile stuffs chunks of hard bread into an opening in the top. The crumbs are made from the same type of loaves Cacace has just popped into the oven. "You see, everything here is made from scratch," Barile says, as he watches the pulverized crumbs pile up in a plastic container. He turns and gives Cacace a nod. They smile. Life is good when you're living your dream.
Barile and Cacace grew up in one of the culinary capitals of the world: Italy. Just above the ankle on the boot near Naples, right on the Gulf of Naples. Their hometown is the port town of Pozzuoli, where visitors can catch ferries to the island of Capri. It also happens to be where a certain Italian star, Sophia Loren, is from.
Barile's father was a fisherman. So was Cacace's. And some of his relatives owned a restaurant. Their families lived next door to each other - so close that the windows and doors were left open so they could converse from house to house.
But everyone was always in the kitchen, Barile says. Rolling up his sleeves, he places his large hands into the brown plastic bin that contains what will later become meatballs. With delicate movements, he gently begins to turn the mixture.
It's the same recipe they learned to make as young cooks.
Meanwhile, the sauce on the stove warms. The impeccable combination of crushed tomatoes, garlic and olive oil spreads through the air. Down the counter, Cacace tosses a round of pizza dough - up and down, up and down, until it reaches perfect Neapolitan thickness. Then he places the white dough on the counter to add sauce and cheese.
Restaurants are what the self-proclaimed cousins know. Cacace's family owns a place called Zi' Teresa. Both of them worked in the restaurant as children, starting about the age of 9. From dishwashers (Barile admits to lingering there for a while) to prepping and then finally cooking, they made their way up the line.
By the time they reached their 20s, the pair knew they wanted to have their own business one day. They just didn't know it would be on the other side of the world.
Six years ago, the pair got word from someone in Pozzuoli that someone in Palm Harbor, in Pinellas County, needed help in his restaurant. Barile was 20; Cacace was 26. The lure of travel and life in a new country couldn't be ignored. To Florida it was.
When they got here, Barile found a job at what used to be Peppino's Italian restaurant in Palm Harbor. Cacace wasn't so lucky. Things weren't exactly what he expected. So he headed to Cocoa Beach, where his uncle lived, and found a similar job there.
On opposite coasts, the two friends kept in touch every day. They didn't do much beyond work and save money. The days were long and the nights lonely.
Remembering those first few months makes Barile shake his head. Learning a new language and culture proved to be more daunting than either had thought. They almost gave up and went back home.
"I thought, what are we doing?" he says.
But then Cacace met Amber. Barile met Roseann. Their English got better. They saved more money.
Eventually, Cacace moved to Spring Hill, where Barile had ended up with his wife's family. Not long after that, he saw that a new shopping center would be built at the intersection of Barclay and Powell, in one of the fastest-growing areas of Hernando County.
Driving past the plot of grass and trees one afternoon, Barile knew this was it. With the help of his new family, he and Cacace got a loan. To cut down on costs, they installed the tile and painted the walls. They'll never forget the long nights that ended at 4 a.m. Or picking out the recipes for their menu - only dishes they would eat themselves. Especially all the seafood ones, with names like "cartoccio," that come to the table on fire, to be followed with sips of wine the pair have shipped from vineyards back home.
Touch of Napoli opened in December.
"It's a - what do you call it? - a labor of love," Barile says. Cacace smiles.
Since they left, they've been back to Italy once. That was a year ago, for a few weeks. A short trip, but they were proud to return as men. Now they're working on getting their mothers, who are afraid to fly, to come and stay for a few months.
One day, when they're a little more established, they'd like to split time between there and here. But for now, it's back to the meatballs. Barile looks for a spot to squeeze in one more on an already crowded tray. The fist-sized spheres are ready to be cooked.
A few moments later, the phone rings. It's the first order of the ay. Then a group of people walk in through the front door. Both are signs that it's time for lunch.
"Hello!" the two chefs yell from the kitchen. The group smiles and waves back.
"Sometimes, I think, I don't know why we left our country," Barile says. "I miss my family. He misses his. But we like it here. There are other real Italians and Italian-Americans from New York. So we found a home. And here we are with our authentic food. It's a touch of Naples."
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432.
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