Anyone who has spent time in Italy, or anyone actually from Italy, will feel he has returned to the country upon visiting the amazing little Toto’s Caffé & Gelateria. This charming combination espresso café, gelateria, and sandwich shop is a sweet slice of Italy transported whole to Ambler and dropped around the corner from SEPTA’s R5 Ambler station.
Toto’s is the creation of Ralph and Maria Palagruto, who trace their family roots back to the town of Maida in Calabria; the area is depicted prominently on one wall in a large mural. They have three sons: Domenico, the eldest, who helps out in the shop, and younger boys Antonio and Francesco. “Toto,” the nickname for Antonio, Maria’s father, is also the name of the boys’ favorite cousin in Maida.
With the exception of the café style tables and chairs, all of the furnishings, the display cases and shelving, the counter, the major equipment and even the coffee and gelato cups are from Italy. The espresso coffee machine is a Faema — the most widely used brand in Italy. With this machine, and imported Essse Caffe brand coffee, the Palagrutos make what Starbucks has poorly and improperly imitated. Just as in Rome or Florence, morning Ambler regulars stop in for a shot of espresso or a double-shot latte, and perhaps a pastry or biscotti, before boarding their train to work.
No one makes better quality, richer, artisan ice creams of so many enchanting and unusual flavors than the Italians with their gelati. Toto’s has the real deal — right here in Montgomery County. Ralph made a major investment in his Carpigiani gelato maker, just like the ones in the great gelaterias of Rome, such as Tre Scalini in Piazza Navona. His gelato recipe and the ingredients are all imported.
On any day, there are 16 flavors of gelato and four flavors of sorbetti (sorbets). They are served in three sizes: piccolo, medio, and grande. Flavors change periodically, but there are favorite constants including: vanilla with chocolate chips, chocolate with hazelnut, tiramisu, caramel vanilla swirl and roasted almond. Last week there was the very special spumoni gelato (strawberry, chocolate and pistachio). There is even pumpkin gelato special for Thanksgiving. You can even order an affogato – a scoop of gelato with a shot of espresso poured over it. There is homemade tiramisu as well.
There are also always two graniti (fruit-flavored Italian slush drinks) from which to choose.
I have made several visits to Toto’s, mainly at lunchtime for sandwiches, and in the afternoon or evening for a dessert, or cappuccino. My favorite sandwich comprises prosciutto, tomato and mozzarella, and is sprinkled with olive oil and oregano, lightly press-grilled. During the summer, my visits would typically include a refreshing granita. Most recently, I enjoyed a strawberry granita, fruity and not overly sweet, with my favorite panini.
Just the other day my LDC and I stopped in and had a delicious vegetarian panini filled with eggplant, sweet pepper and mozzarella zested with olive tapenade; and a milder tasting chicken parmesan wrap. We shared a hot bowl of superb Tuscan white cannelli bean and ham soup, perfect for a rainy afternoon.This savory lunch’s finale was hand scooped gelati: dark and deep chocolate, and a combo of coffee and caramel swirl.
Note: Everything I have mentioned above costs less than $7 each.
Toto's Caffe has inside seating, tables on the covered front porch, and umbrella tables outside, out front.
An anonymous, ice cream loving philosopher once wrote, “Without ice cream, life would be darkness and chaos,” …well, certainly not as sweet.
Overall Rating: m m m m (out of 5 m’s) for authentic espresso drinks, gelato and more.
Toto’s Caffé & Gelateria
Address: 35 N. Main St., Ambler
Cuisine: Homemade gelato, Italian sandwiches, panini, wraps, espresso bar drinks
Hours: Monday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Prices: Soups and salads, $3 to $7; sandwiches, $4 to $7 (Cash only)
Ambiance: A sandwich shop and ice cream parlor seemingly right out of Italy
To contact Mitch Davis, email: MdavisMainCourse@aol.com