If you didn’t grow up in Florence – if you only know it as the place with the mall and the water tower and the minor league baseball team called the Y’alls – you might think of it as nothing more than suburban sprawl. A place with an Olive Garden and a Longhorn Steakhouse, a bunch of fast food chains and a lot of gas stations.
Look closer, though, and you’ll see that Florence is much more than that. First of all, it’s a place that has stories to tell – of a U.S. veteran pitmaster who has spent most of his life helping others, of a young Mexican woman using her mother’s recipes at a restaurant she runs with her husband behind a Shell station, of a Japanese chef who opened in hopes of catering to a long-gone Toyota headquarters that shuttered and moved away.
In just one strip mall, you will find his Japanese restaurant right next door to a halal butcher and a Mexican bodega. In another, you’ll find a Venezuelan restaurant next door to two Mexican spots.
Yes, there is excellent food to be had here, everything from Venezuelan hot dogs to Mexican tortas to one of Northern Kentucky’s oldest pizzerias. Heck, even the Florence Mall has something to offer. Inside its food court, you’ll find a pho restaurant and a Greek gyro spot with some of the friendliest service you’ll likely find anywhere. And so, without further ado, here are 10 spots I found while traveling through Florence.
I’ve never claimed to be a taco connoisseur, but the street tacos I found at Lita’s are particularly good. The cilantro and tomatillo sauce taste a little bit fresher than they do elsewhere, likely because they’re both made by co-owner Mari Pinto’s mother, Lita. The general vibe of this strip mall joint is convivial and festive.
On the day I visited, the only tacos available were chicken. When I asked why, owner Mari Pinto apologized and said she was waiting for her husband, Aarington Davis, to return from picking up all of their other meats in Lexington – further proof of the hustle that’s required of restaurants these days.
No matter, the cowboy chicken taco I ordered with shredded chicken pico, cotija cheese and jalapeno cream sauce was all I needed to fall for this place. Other offerings include street corn covered with a thin layer of mayonnaise and cheese and asada nachos with grilled, sliced beef, tortilla chips, nacho cheese, onions, cilantro, radishes and tomatillo sauce.
8450 U.S. Highway 42 A, Florence, 859-817-0163, litastacos.com.
Tom’s Papa Dino’s
Tom Schwartz grew up in Cincinnati’s Little Italy neighborhood in South Fairmount right alongside Buddy LaRosa. He eventually joined Buddy, working at his original Boudinot Avenue location. After serving in the Navy, he married Marian in 1954 and a year later they opened this little pizzeria in Florence, the first one to open in Northern Kentucky. These days, Tom’s is run by Tom and Marian’s daughter, Mary Schwartz-Crittendon, and her husband, Mike Crittendon.
The pizza resembles LaRosa’s only so far as its appearance. The sauce isn’t as sweet, and the original ovens add something intangible to the taste. An old-world ambiance permeates the place, reminding me of the pizzerias my father took me to as a kid in the ’70s and ’80s.
Other menu items include spaghetti and meatballs (the sauce recipe comes from Mary’s grandmother), hoagies (the roast beef is particularly good), lasagna and cheese ravioli. This isn’t just a pizzeria, it’s an old-school Italian joint.
288 Main St., Florence, 859-371-5567, tomspapadinospizza.com.
Smokin’ This and That Barbecue
There’s a strong military presence at Smoking This or That Barbecue but not one that’s meant to intimidate. Flags from all six branches of the military hang on the walls that are signed by so many veterans that it looks like a popular kid’s yearbook.
The restaurant is located in a recently spiffed-up strip mall just off of Mount Zion Road. It’s owned by Guy Cummins, who served in the military, and his wife, Mandy. They get up at dawn each morning to prepare pork, chicken and ribs in a battered but beloved smoker that Guy built in his backyard workshop in Hebron.
Guy has quite a history of giving to others. He started out cooking when he traveled to New York to provide food for victims of Superstorm Sandy. The food he and Mandy prepare is quite good and extremely plentiful. A pulled chicken sandwich I ordered had enough meat to feed, well, an army. Their ribs are top-notch, too.
10020 Demia Way, Florence, 859-817-0492, smokinthisandthatbbq.com.
Poseidon’s Pizza Company
Poseidon’s Pizza is located in a spot so clean that it looks like a salon waiting room. In fact, the first time I walked inside, I wasn’t sure if I was in a pizza joint at all. But once I tasted the pizza, I quickly realized it’s the real deal.
The pizzeria, owned by the husband-and-wife team of Savannah Allen and Brad Iannucci, offers an assortment of pies, including a taco pizza, a pickle pizza and a Hawaiian pizza named after Allen’s brother. But what got my attention was the vegetarian deep-dish pizza with crunchy, finely chopped vegetables that are hidden beneath a thick topping of fresh tomato sauce. This might be one of my favorite new pies.
8640 Haines Drive, Florence, 859-569-0056, poseidonspizzacompany.com.
Manny’s is a cozy and, yes, cabin-like Venezuelan restaurant serving a variety of dishes, including arepas, empanadas and cachapas (corn pancakes). But it’s the Venezuelan-style hot dog that really bowled me over. The dog comes covered in cabbage salad, bacon, Venezuelan cheese, fried potato sticks, mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup.
Other offerings include pabellon criollo, a composed plate of pulled beef, black beans, plantains and rice that is considered Venezuela’s national dish.
10136 Dixie Highway, Florence, 859-466-4287.
This old-school bakery has been serving donuts, coffee cakes and Danish pastries since it was opened in 1970 by Cecil Emerson and his late wife, Sharon, on Manderlay Drive. In 1997, their son, Steve Emerson, opened Emo’s Bagel House, which former Enquirer food critic Chuck Martin once named the best bagels in Greater Cincinnati (they’ve held up well).
Emerson’s now has five locations, including Covington, Erlanger and Independence. Still, it’s worth visiting the one where it all started. Especially since Cecil, now in his 80s, still comes in almost every morning to bake.
8459 Highway 42, Florence, 859-371-9228, emersonsbakeryky.com.
La Torta Loca
By far the best tortas I’ve tasted in Greater Cincinnati are the ones at this Mexican Venezuelan spot owned by Edgar De la Cruze and his wife, Karina Presti. The rolls are fresh and sturdy enough to handle the generous amount of meat, veggies and sauces with which they’re packed. My favorite is the Hawaiian, a monster of a sandwich with ham, sausage, chorizo, steak, chicken Milanese, eggs, avocado, lettuce, tomato, cheese, pineapple and chipotle sauce (yes, this is just one sandwich).
If you’re feeling a little less meaty, you can get the Sister Torta, with cod, shrimp and fresh pico. There are also empanadas, tacos, arepas and chilaquiles to be had. With its over-the-top food and full bar menu, this is the kind of place that encourages decadence. (A sign above the bar reads “Soup of the Day: Tequila.”) So come prepared.
8645 Haines Drive, A, Florence, 859-817-1028, latortalocaflorence.com.
The sashimi is as fresh as it gets at Matsuya, one of several Japanese restaurants that opened after Toyota opened its North American headquarters in nearby Erlanger in 1996 (then packed up and moved in 2014). Still, the sushi line continues at Matsuya, which is owned by Hideaki Matsushita, a native of Japan who also serves shabu-shabu (thinly sliced beef served in a seaweed broth) and a satisfying pork shogayaki (sliced pork simmered in ginger sauce and served with shredded cabbage and vegetables).
7149 Manderlay Drive, Florence, 859-746-1199.
Yes, it’s located in the food court of Florence Mall, but Greek Burrito isn’t your average food court fare. Or maybe it is − the big difference being that the staff here is insanely friendly and engaging, and the food they serve is reliably good. Start with the gyro, but also go for more fusiony fare such as the Hercules burger (the beef burger topped with gyro meat) or a three-layer pistachio cheesecake for dessert. (Also, while I haven’t tried it yet, you might want to check out Pholicious, a Vietnamese pho stall located just across the food court.)
2084 Mall Road, Florence (inside the Florence Mall food court), 513-614-6306.
Located in an old Long John Silvers, Mai Thai packs in the locals, who flock here for its excellent sushi rolls, pad thai and other specialties such as crispy fried walleye in sweet and sour sauce and a variety of curry dishes. The futomaki roll with crab stick, shrimp, cucumber, tomato, kanpyo and pink fish flakes should not be missed.
7710 U.S. Hwy 42, Florence, 859-282-1888, maithaiandsushi.com.