Noodle Nirvana

Expectation can be a diner's worst enemy, leading down the path of culinary disaster. I can't count how many times I've entered a restaurant run by people who operate other well-known eateries with good reputations and left bewildered by an unappealing menu, poor service, or icky food.

The most recent example of this kind struck close to home. Boca Raton-based Unique Restaurants, the Dennis Max and Burt Rapaport group, opened Max's Cafe & Marketplace, their first operation outside Florida, in Livingston, the town in New Jersey where I grew up. Not only that, but the cafe took over the site of Don's, the deli restaurant and bakery where I worked for four years. The coincidences were too rich to ignore, and as a big fan of Max's restaurants (which include Maxaluna in Boca, My Martini Grille in West Palm Beach, and Astor Place Bar & Grill in Miami, to name an award-winning few), I immediately made plans to dine there.

I changed my mind after reading the menu and a recent review of the place. Provincial Livingston, it seemed, thinks innovative fare belongs in New York City, and clamored for the return of the cheaper fare it has been consuming for 40 years. Dennis Max, no fool (or no choice), complied by revising his original menu, adding 40 new items, many from Tabatchnicks (a well-known local deli), and several Don's favorites (read: the pizza burger). He also brought back the entire Don's baking staff, which in my opinion was never too sharp to start with. So now a sloppy joe and a slice of coffeecake reign next to highly styled Max's creations such as grilled filet mignon with "frizzled" onion rings -- which, naturally, cost more than twice as much as the sandwich stuff. I'll sup at any Max's restaurant down here, and that includes the casual Coffee Shop in Mizner Park. But I did the corned-beef thing for a lifetime, feels like. Next time I go home, I'll eat at Mom's.

Fortunately expectation can also be a diner's best friend, leading down the path of culinary delight. Anticipation led me to an excellent meal at Donatello Trattoria in Pompano Beach. This year-old Italian restaurant was opened by Argentine entrepreneur Eloy Roy and company -- the same folks who turned a delivery-only homemade pasta shop into a popular three-trattoria mini-empire in Miami (Oggi Caffe, Caffe Da Vinci, and Caffe Sambuca) -- who subsequently sold it in March. Having dined (many times) at Donatello's southern counterparts, I'm happy to report that this incarnation is their equal.

As much as it is their clone. New owner Humberto Ortega has made few if any changes. As a result, menus at the four restaurants are almost identical, varying only slightly in terms of a pasta dish here and there (some are simply given different names). And if you can't find a favorite from one restaurant on the menu at another, you can probably catch it on the list of specials recited by your waiter. Perhaps this is a bit formulaic, but prices are reasonable, and the food is both delicious and sufficiently sophisticated to encourage repeat visits.

Yet this inviting, 40-seat Pompano Beach space has yet to catch on in the area. It never had the weight of its siblings' accomplishments behind it up here, nor does it have the advantage of a good location. Stuck in a little strip mall, Donatello is overwhelmed by the bright lights of nearby gas stations and fast-food eateries. In fact, if you call ahead for directions, the staff tells you to look for the Wendy's, which is visible even from inside the restaurant. The interior is a haven, however. Lemon-painted walls, dark wood accents, and tastefully framed paintings have a cheery effect, complemented by a smiling, helpful staff.

As in the Miami restaurants, the meal begins with gratis bruschetta, olive oil-soaked tomatoes laced with garlic and basil over toasted bread. These munchies are a tasty segue into the homemade rolls with garlic-herb butter, which in turn are ideal accompaniments to simple if uninventive appetizers such as salmon carpaccio, beef carpaccio, mozzarella-and-tomato salad, and prosciutto layered over cantaloupe. My favorite starter is the house salad, a combination of romaine lettuce, sliced tomatoes, shaved red onions, and pitted green and black olives. A light vinaigrette, perfectly blended and accented by tiny bits of onion and bell pepper, unites the fresh ingredients. Insalata del scultore also featured a savory vinaigrette, this time raspberry. But the chopped salad, comprising radicchio, arugula, and tomato, was a little bitter.

Portobello al balsamico, one of the two hot appetizers listed on the menu (the other is mozzarella wrapped with roasted peppers and eggplant), had some of the elements of a salad, albeit a purposefully wilted one. Doused with balsamic vinegar, the sauteed portobello mushroom pieces were served on a bed of fresh uncooked spinach. Roasted red pepper and a touch of garlic added potent flavor, tempering the vinegar, resulting in a tasty but light starter.

The small menu makes listening closely to the specials a worthwhile endeavor. We gleaned a wonderful pasta fagioli, a white bean soup rich with onions, celery, carrots, and fragments of noodles. A special pasta, available as an appetizer or as an entree, was even better. Fresh snow crab was minced and stuffed into spinach pasta, which was then sealed into half-moon shapes. The eight ravioli were then blanketed in a delicate cream sauce imbued with scallions and parsley and served beautifully al dente, making us glad we'd ordered the entree portion to split.

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