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Owners of Italian restaurants must be blessed with a fierce risk-taking gene. Not counting pizza parlors and factoring out Olive Garden and Carrabba's, there must be 300 Italian places scattered around Broward and Palm Beach counties. The competition is so cut-throat that if you're drawing up a menu featuring chicken parmigiana or veal scallopini, you'd better damn well be able to trace your lineage back through generations of Milanese chefs or have spent a lifetime apprenticed to somebody's great-grandmother in a remote Tuscan hilltop village or be waving a sheaf of culinary school diplomas. Better yet, all three.
Or, like Carlleen Wilson, maybe you do it because it's a natural. Wilson, a petite, husky-voiced blond, and her ex-husband, Victor Velasquez, have been churning out Italian restaurants in South Florida the way Sicilian mamas pop out bambinos. They co-founded the long-running Prima Pasta on Miami Beach, followed it with Primola in North Miami, and opened Café Vico in Lauderdale before Marco "Vico" Rodriguez put his imprimatur on the place and turned it into a delicious institution. Wilson's latest venture is Primanotte, on Harrison Street in downtown Hollywood.
Primanotte, with Chef Gererdo Perez in the kitchen, joins a jostling welter of trattoria Italiana in downtown Hollywood -- a crowd that includes Mama Mia, Luce, upscale Fulvio's 1900, and the wildly popular La Piazza Pizza Café, all within walking distance. That Primanotte's prices are moderate doesn't set it apart from the pack -- only Fulvio's is much more expensive. But the average cost of an entrée (around $15) makes the place a magnet for 20- and 30-somethings on the mate. The Saturday night we went, Primanotte was full of couples at small tables making goo-goo eyes at each other over the tiramisu. On another Saturday, a wedding party kept the place hopping for hours, simply refusing to budge. This year-old restaurant is romance central.
As for the menu, a boy and his dream date won't need to waste precious minutes poring over the selections: It's minimalist. Twelve appetizers and salads (calamari fritti, mussels marinara, peppers stuffed with goat cheese), 13 pastas (penne puttanesca, lasagna, gnocchi quattro formaggi), four breast-of-chicken dishes (lemon, tri colore, parmigiana, marsala), four veal entrées (parmigiana, piccata, saltimbocca, giardino), plus pricier nightly specials of fish, beef, or lamb -- could indicate a total lack of imagination, a practicality verging on compulsion, or an enviable ease with simplicity.
Owner Wilson greeted and seated us the nights we visited, while two servers hovered and fussed, filling our water glasses, hustling out warm, floury rolls for dipping in a dish of garlic-infused olive oil. Our waiter ran through the night's specials: clam soup appetizer, veal chop, filet of tilapia piccata, frutti di mare with lobster cream or tomato sauce. We ordered a bottle of Luna di Luna, a 60/40 Chardonnay-Pinot Grigio blend from the Veneto region of Italy ($24), as a cool aperitif. Our waiter brought the bottle promptly, served it properly -- politely letting us both have a look at the label -- and then dunked it in a silver ice bucket within reach at the next table.
Like the minimalist menu, there's nothing happening visually at Primanotte to distract your mate from rapt attention while you spin out the fascinating saga of your life. Primanotte is a blank screen; you'll stand out in sharp relief. The décor is restaurant-lite: cobalt lamps above a dark wood bar, white tablecloths and napkins, Mexican tile floor, and those cutesy, primary-colored canvasses painted by local artists. As usual, the paintings are only sort of dreadful: They're like an acquaintance who latches on to you at a bar -- you wouldn't want to live with one, but you don't object to having it hang next to you for a couple of hours. Only a third of the tables inside were full when we got there at 8:15, but the 20 seats set up on the sidewalk had all been spoken for (another outdoor lounge is in the works).
Our inexpensive bottle of wine was, it turned out, the high point of the evening. Primanotte has a nifty little wine list of midpriced Italian wines, a couple of splurge items, and a few American standbys. The midpriced Italians include the deep and plummy Fattoria Campigiana Il Barbarossa Chianti, ($39);for a splurge, the Amarone ($70, Tinazzi) is the wine Hannibal Lecter enjoyed with liver and fava beans. Our Luna di Luna was ice cold and refreshing: tart and dry straight off the ice, fruiting up as it warmed toward room temperature. And thank God we had it; it was blessed relief. Someone had dumped so much chopped garlic into our dish of olive oil that we were stuck with the taste permanently. Granted, garlic is a terrific anti-oxidant and excellent remedy for intestinal parasites, but romancers be warned: He who fails to stock up on breath mints for the ride home may lose favor with the goddess. Two buttery little crostinis topped with chopped tomatoes and basil, a pleasant if uninspired bruschetta, helped soothe the burn.
We'd ordered "clam soup" ($8.95), and "carpaccio di manso" ($9.95) for starters; when they arrived, the soup was not soup yet. More like a dozen littleneck clams steamed and served in their own broth. A classic zuppa di vongole usually has more to it: fresh herbs, leeks and onions, tomatoes, occasionally croutons, although the Neapolitans do make a clam soup without tomato. The clams were thumbnail-sized, chewy, and slightly metallic; the broth lacked a generous splash of quality white wine and the aroma and flavor of the best olive oil. Most classic Italian recipes call for the small or baby clams, but if I were king of Primanotte's kitchen, I'd go with our local, medium-sized, wild Florida clams instead; they're a lot tastier than the little guys they're serving.