And those appetizers and desserts don't fool around: A plate of smoky, grilled calamari with white beans in the most delicate tomato sauce you've ever tasted (normally $9.95) is absolute bliss; an appetizer portion of agnolotti in porcini mushroom sauce ($10.95) tastes like earth-scented silk. Put any of the apps on this menu -- from the pasta faggiole to the carpaccio dusted with parmesan -- together with a special like perch cooked Livornese-style ($26.95), pungent with olives, capers, and fragrant, sweet tomatoes, and you've got a meal made in heaven.
The downside: Stresa is camouflaged in sad-sack browns and beiges that blend right into the strip mall that houses it. You could drive by 1,000 times and never see the place. This Western stretch of Okeechobee Boulevard has no redeeming qualities. And the ugly location is almost a sick joke -- it's as far from its namesake Italian resort, a town on the banks of Lake Maggiore overlooking the Borromeo Islands, as it's possible to get. But inside those dusty, blank windows, Stresa's rooms are inviting enough; the linen-draped tables are spaced well apart for privacy and decorated with vases of flowers, bottles of good olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and dishes of grated cheese. It ain't the Rainbow Room, folks, but for a steaming bowl of tortellini soup topped with a handful of grated cheese ($3.95), it'll do just fine.
Stresa has been going strong for ten years, owned by the same people who run Trevini Ristorante, an upscale Italian joint on Worth Avenue (Trevini is running a 25 percent discount on early-bird checks this summer too). The connection with Trevini is a good thing, since the restaurants share some items like desserts: The black forest pie ($6.50), a creamy chocolate mousse tucked into a "crust" of white cake decorated with chocolate hearts, is as good as anything you'll find on the island. Stresa may be Trevini's dowdy country-mouse cousin, but it's a far better value when it's too darned hot to do anything but eat.