Italian restaurant a Fort Worth gem

The Italian Inn, “Home of the Singing Waiters,” is the best kept secret in Fort Worth.This romantic restaurant, open since 1967, melts the heart with a unique atmosphere unlike anywhere else in the Metroplex.

The Italian Inn is so special because of its one-of-a-kind location – under ground in a shopping center by Ridglea Theater on Camp Bowie.

The restaurant would have a basement-like quality if it weren’t covered in over thirty years of lovers’ graffiti. Adding to its distinctiveness, the waiters and waitresses sing love songs, show tunes and jazz to a live band while guests eat.

Kenny Zeqiri, who has owned the Italian Inn for the last 10 years, said many generations of patrons make this hideaway stand out.

“The Italian Inn is known for the graffiti, private booths, singing waiters and good piano players,” Zeqiri said. “It’s been a tradition. The place has been here so long that parents bring their kids in telling them where they had their first date. And now, those children are bringing in their children.”

The ceiling-to-floor graffiti itself is worth checking out. Ink obscures the red and green walls. Patrons are allowed to write on every inch of the restaurant, except where murals depicting the Italian countryside are painted.

Each booth, which is high-walled with doors you can close for privacy, is decorated with decades of notes. I got lost reading messages. The most fun part about the graffiti, though, is finding old messages where couples have then added, “20 years and still going strong. Love you as much now as I did on 6/7/78.”

Zeqiri said because of the romantic atmosphere of the restaurant, it averages two engagements a week, plus a slew of birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions.

The closed-in booth doors and the addition of flickering candles to the dark lighting makes even casual acquaintances pretty snuggly.

To top everything off, the waiters and waitresses sing with an incredible pianist on weekdays and to a live band complete with tap dancing on weekends. The waiters and waitresses are almost all seasoned performers who have to go through an audition to get the gig.

Julie Emmick, a long-time waitress at the Italian Inn, said that a lot of the waiters are in show business and use this as a kind of “day job.”

“A lot of our singers have gone on to Broadway and other musical shows,” Emmick said. “One is now doing a lead in Phantom of the Opera, and a guy who worked here is now teaching music at Yale. Some waiters here just put out a CD, and they split their time between playing at clubs and working here.”

Emmick said that working at the Italian Inn is such a joy because of the constant gusto of the workers and patrons alike.

When I was dining, Van Morrison’s “Moondance” motivated people to get up and dance followed by a rendition of The Eagles’ “Desperado.”

Occasionally, random patrons also get up and pick up the mic to test their musical chops with favorites like “Your Song” and “A Whole New World.” The Italian Inn doesn’t keep anyone away from singing their heart out – tone deaf or not. Even when the place is hopping with guests, and the waiters can’t get away to perform, the pianist almost always keeps going as little girls twirl happily in the center of the dance floor.

It should be mentioned, too, that the food at the Italian Inn is nothing at which to turn up your nose. They have a large menu of Italian favorites, including cannelloni, manicotti, tortellinis and other delicious-sounding pasta dishes. There is also pizza, chicken, steak, veal and seafood. Additionally, most meals come with a salad bar.

Emmick said some of their most popular items are the great weekend specials they run, especially their seafood.

For my meal, I had mushrooms stuffed with crab meat in a sherry wine sauce. I was persuaded into getting them by my date, even though I have a passionate distaste for fungus. After eating three, I was sold on the restaurant.

My good feelings on the food were only further confirmed when I got the spaghetti and meatballs and was pleasantly surprised that their idea of meatballs was that of traditional Italian restaurants: big, spicy, flavorful, but not too greasy.

For dessert, the Italian Inn has a wide selection of cakes and cheesecakes. I had a slice of the chocolate mousse cake. The serving size was so big I couldn’t finish it, but the cake itself was rich, while still being light and fluffy.

The Italian Inn’s prices are reasonable for the quality of service and food, portion size and overall experience. The average main course ranges from $10 to $15 with desserts and appetizers running at about $5. Reservations are not required but accepted, especially on weekends when the restaurant tends to fill up. The hours are from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on weeknights and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. For reservations or more information, call 817-737-0123.