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Her name is Rino's Tuscan Grill and, according to Balzano, this fine dining establishment is "gonna be successful." Balzano should know; he's been feeding people around Broward County for nearly two decades. In 1990, he opened Il Tartufo on Las Olas (now the home of Chima Brazilian Steakhouse) and Coral Springs-based Il Porcino in 1987. He still remains a business partner for Louie Louie on Las Olas and is the big cheese at Rino's Ristorante on Sample Road in Coral Springs.
If none of these restaurant names rings a bell, perchance you had the opportunity to meet him at a celebrity-studded event on the arm of Demi Moore, Oscar de la Hoya, or Robert De Niro. Balzano says they have all called on him to cater private parties and create spreads for movie sets when they work locally. If you don't believe him, just look at the wall by the host stand -- he has the photos to prove he moves in those circles.
He has fans too. With his thick-as-tomato-paste Italian accent, Balzano told me, "The people I know are very happy I'm back. What I did in the past was good."
According to our server, Gabriel, the restaurant had its grand opening nearly two months ago, and supposedly about 450 people were in attendance. Where they all fit is a mystery to me. This place sits only about 60 people inside and 50 outside. However, the times my guests and I dined there, once outside on a balmy eve, the other inside on a chilly night, the place was virtually devoid of customers.
But Rino's Tuscan Grill sits on some pretty prime real estate, which is a big part of why Balzano believes he will triumph. The front entrance faces Las Olas. To the east is a canal, and to the west is the vacant shell of what used to be Bistro Las Olas. Inside Rino's, wooden tables are set with polished silverware and candles, while blond wood and brick cover the narrow walls and bar. A not-so-stylish transparent plastic curtain protects outdoor diners from the elements. Though it takes away a bit of the romance, Rino's employs a tall heater to keep your tootsies toasty.
The menu, which is attractively encased in a cork cover, is small but teeming with Tuscan influence. (Balzano is actually from the Amalfi coast, but let's not quibble over details.) Besides the obvious clues to its Italian inspiration (most dishes end with an o or an a), there are more subtle hints like the use of extra virgin olive oil and rosemary. Plus, as is to be expected at any Tuscan-themed restaurant, a costata alla fiorentina (a.k.a. T-bone steak prepared in extra virgin olive oil with salt and pepper) is featured ($36).
Since the menu suggests that diners ask the server for a list of specialties, I did just that. "My, aren't we in a hurry?" he answered with scorn. Shame on me. The man wouldn't describe the specials until he asked our water preference (flat, bubbly, or tap), delivered the glasses, then returned with a petite plate of olives, small pickled peppers, and shaved slices of parmesan.
So we took our sweet time perusing the impressive wine list, which offers a multitude of selections by the glass ($7.50 to $19). After this, at least ten pages of bottled wines follow -- all of which are from Italy ($25 to $250) -- with a page of champagnes and a page of California vintages rounding out the offerings. My guest that night was a wine aficionado whose eyes bugged out when he noticed a 2001 Lakoya Cabernet Sauvignon priced at $59. After we drank the bottle, he called a buddy, who confirmed that we had hit pay dirt with our selection. The bottle usually sells for about $92.
We needed something to soak up the wine, but no bread arrived. So we chatted with our server, who kindly popped in Balzano's CD for our listening pleasure. Yes, it seems the owner not only cooks and hobnobs with celebrities but also sings opera for fun.
Later, when some bread finally arrived, we were taken aback. It was a bulbous, big-as-your-head, hollow balloon of chewiness decorated with a pool of olive oil and shaved parmesan. In other words, it was fun to look at and play with but also greasy and not very filling.
Though the menu warns that diners should allow time for preparation, as all food is cooked to order, appetizers, entrées, and desserts all arrived at a respectable pace. One night, we started with a flavorful beef carpaccio ($11). Slices of thin, raw tenderloin covered the plate and were bathed in just the right amount of extra virgin olive oil. A tuft of arugula and fennel topped with shaved parmesan anchored the center of the platter, and scattered squares of sun-dried tomatoes added a nice bit of color. I was at first dismayed to see that there were no slices of lemon on the side, but then I discovered that the deft chef had already squeezed just the right amount atop the perfectly chilled meat.