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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.
Carpaccio is a great excuse to eat raw beef in a world where the wrong bite of anything uncooked threatens to leave you, at best, hovering over a toilet or, at worst, hooked up to a breathing machine. At Primanotte, the filet is shaved gossamer-thin. Carpaccio is a delicate treat that dissolves in your mouth and should leave you blissful. This one had all the right ingredients in all the wrong proportions: too much lemon -- was the chef trying to marinate the raw meat... just in case? Too little extra virgin olive oil; in fact, none at all. And handfuls of second-rate parmesan cheese, big greasy shavings instead of a light dusting of the inimitable, gritty Reggiano that brings any dish closer to the sublime. Not inedible by a long shot, but not good enough to risk contracting Mad Cow either.
Service was spiffy -- wine glasses replenished often, entrées arriving on schedule. A fat, robust veal chop ($26.95) on its long, unwieldy rib came decorated with a festive tinfoil tail. Grilled medium-rare, so tender it should be illegal, this baby was perfect. But the kitchen had smothered the poor thing with an inch-high blanket of goat cheese -- tarting up a gorgeous face with the Easter hat from hell. We scraped it off. A dab of it was yummy mixed with the sautéed spinach. A side dish of penne alla vodka was nothing special.
And then we knew what was wrong. This kitchen is deathly afraid to let a plate of food just be. You can't taste the olive oil for the garlic, the raw beef for the parmesan, the veal for the cheese. This menu is like a bright child with a micromanaging stage mother who won't leave the kid alone for two seconds.
Our plate of homemade agnolotti rosa ($13.95, straight off Café Vico's menu) was another case of overkill. Creamy, dense pasta stuffed with creamy ricotta cheese and chopped spinach was doused with creamy tomato cream sauce. Boy, was it creamy! It could have used some contrast; that agnolotti would have been just dandy with a quick, tart tomato sauce. Or a stronger cheese. Or even a more balanced sauce to draw out the tomato's acidity. Rich, filling, and about as interesting as a nursery pudding.
Meanwhile, the diners around us were raving. One young stud pushed back his plate and announced to his lovely: "That was the best meal I've ever had." If she marries him, she's forewarned. At the table of three behind us, after working through the story of his ex-wife's suicide, a playboy with a beauty on each arm sang lengthy praises to his pasta.
Was it just us? Are we so jaded, so gluttonous, so irredeemably spoiled and snooty that we just don't like anything anymore?
No dice. Our hovering waiters had completely disappeared, and we were left picking parsley flakes off the linen. We finally managed to obtain a dish of tiramisu ($5.95), passing up the ricotta cheesecake and the lemon ice, figuring the ubiquitous old standby would settle the score. A fine tiramisu can wipe a mediocre meal completely off the memory's books; it's the eternal sunshine of desserts.
This one was a one-trick pony, its only trick the flavor of heavily sweetened refrigerator.