So Fra, So Good

A liberal hand with the liquor means culinary magic at this Italian eatery

People often ask me how I choose the restaurants I'm going to review. I give 'em the old party line: I do extensive research; I vary the reviews by city, ethnicity, and price range; I look for a good back story.

At least, that's how it's supposed to work. The sad truth? Sometimes the next place that's open is the one that gets the nod.

On a recent Sunday night in the Lauderhill area, my first choice, the lauded Chinese restaurant Silver Pond, was filled with a private wedding party, and no one else was allowed in, the man blocking the door told us. Our next stop, a Jamaican joint called Cooke's Goose, had closed at 8:15, the manager said. As it turned out, Cooke's Goose was also, amazingly enough, catering a private party. After a brief conference, the management told us they'd be happy to see if the kitchen could make us something, but we were uncomfortable being in the mostly dark second dining room, with only the lamp over our booth lighted.

The veal sorrentina is one of many spirited entrées
Michael McElroy
The veal sorrentina is one of many spirited entrées

When an annoying set of circumstances like this happens, I chalk it up to "meant to be" and give up on the idea of reviewing a restaurant that evening. Of course, my guests and I still had to eat. But it quickly became apparent as we drove around some rather deserted neighborhoods looking for supper that the economic downturn has affected hours: Hardly anything was open. The choice came down to Chinese or Italian. We flipped a mental coin and wound up at eight-year-old Fra Diavolo on North University Drive and found, to our surprise, not only a restaurant worth writing home about but one worth writing a review about.

For starters, the welcome in this small, cozy eatery was genuine. No one cast glances as pointed as toothpicks at a watch when we entered (past 9 p.m. -- not that late, but certainly pushing the school-night clock in this residential area). Not a single server sighed and said something to the effect of, "We'll serve you if we really have to." Instead, we were greeted cheerfully by both the host who sat us promptly at a cloth-draped table and by the garlic-tomato cooking aromas emanating from the kitchen. After the earlier disappointments of the evening, this kind and gentle atmosphere was a tonic. But even if we hadn't been under stress, we would have felt just a little cherished.

Fra Diavolo is more than homey, however, despite the faux grape arbor overhead and the tchotchkes that fill every available space. A sophisticated sensibility is obvious from the menu's mascot -- a cheeky, grinning monk with a bottle of wine tucked into his knapsack. What this reveals is that the proprietors not only have named their restaurant after a popular Italian sauce but they're also well aware of the translation: Fra is actually the title given to Italian friars.

Fra Diavolo is also well-aware of what milk-fed veal is, a meat that I haven't had so finely done since it went out of political vogue in the 1980s. My apologies to PETA, but I can't drum up much sympathy when confronted with Fra Diavolo's platter of bocconcini Piemontese. The veal medallions were pounded to a practically texture-free finale, then lightly dredged and quickly sautéed with brandy, prosciutto, peas, mushrooms, and a touch of cream. The sauce boasted neither too much alcohol flavor nor too much dairy and clung perfectly to a bed of fettuccine. For a less-delicate, more filling veal entrée, check out the sorrentina version. Here, the tender veal was layered with thinly sliced eggplant, prosciutto, and mozzarella, then moistened with a white wine demi glace deepened with tomatoes. This particular main course comes with a side of linguine with marinara, a good tangy match for the hearty veal centerpiece.

In fact, all meat, poultry, and fish main courses are accompanied by pasta, whether it's on the plate or in a bowl on the side. Shrimp al fungetto was also plated over linguine, which caught the superbly balanced cognac-cream sauce. The prime merit of this dish, though, was the fresh shrimp, tightly curled jumbos that hadn't been obscured by the creaminess of the gravy.

Not every entrée is incredibly rich, but you can count on their all being highly flavored. Chicken scarpariello is one example. The chunks of chicken had been pan-fried in olive oil and garlic, then tossed with sausages so flexible they tasted homemade. Add in the gratis garlic bread and bowl of marinated vegetable salsa, plus the house salad that precedes the main event (and pasta dishes), and the chicken becomes a challenge to finish.

Most likely, though, you'll be seduced into ordering appetizers simply because the dining room is so redolent, it's hard to restrain yourself. Caesar salad had too much anchovy paste for my taste, and I found the seafood-stuffed mushrooms a bit overwhelmed by a heaping portion of garlic and a lid of melted mozzarella. But the rollatini di melanzane, leaves of eggplant stuffed with smooth ricotta and baked in tomato sauce, was excellent, not stringy as this item can sometimes be, and triangles of fried mozzarella were clearly made on the spot, with the cheese just oozing through the rich brown crust.

If Fra Diavolo's fondness for liquored-up recipes isn't obvious just by reading the list of entrées (11 dishes out of 22 contain some sort of spirit), get a load of, and loaded on, the desserts: The tiramisu is soaked in amaretto, and the house special is whiskey cake. We went with a heady Italian rum cake and a slice of ricotta-rich cheesecake that was flavored with triple sec.

All in all, as it turned out, it was a good thing we'd done a large portion of the driving around before we found Fra Diavolo. Had we been pulled over for cruising aimlessly around Lauderhill after dinner, I doubt the police officers would have believed we'd been sucking on sweets instead of bottles.

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