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Though I recognized most of the pasta, chicken, seafood, and beef selections, some of the menu choices included unfamiliar flavors and ingredients. For example, I had never heard of a black lobster, but it is featured as the stuffing in a ravioli plate (our waiter swore it was not regular lobster touched with squid ink). There was also something called "hare sauce" that turned out to be exactly what I feared. When I investigated the recipe online, I found this from Lo Strettoio, a restaurant in Florence:
Use only the forequarters of the hare for the sauce. Collect all the blood of the animal because it will be used instead of tomatoes (as before 1492). Cut up into small pieces and add to the pan where the onion is browning in the oil. Over a slow flame, let the juices run out of the meat and add the parsley and other vegetables with the chopped liver, heart, and lungs. Allow the flavours to blend and then douse with the red wine and blood and reduce.
Other findings on the menu included Arborio rice (a short-grained import from Italy with a high starch content and a creamy risotto flavor) and cannellini beans, which are white and kidney-shaped.
Thankfully, my guests ordered recognizable entrées, and our choices included two pasta dishes, one seafood selection, and a veal dish on special. The menu lists fettine di vitello dello chef, meaning that the nightly veal selection is at the chef's whim. We bravely ordered the evening's offering of veal saltimbocca ($21), which is breaded veal topped with prosciutto and cheese. Of all the dishes we tried, this was the biggest disappointment. The breading was too heavy, the prosciutto overcooked, and the leftover pool of oil at the bottom of the dish was enough to nearly drown the two slices of veal we left on the plate.
One of the pasta dishes was also quite oily, but that wasn't the only problem. According to the menu, I ordered tortelli di zucca alla salvia e pinoli ($18), which is a plate of pumpkin-filled tortelli noodles with sage, parmesan, and pine nuts; but this clearly was ravioli, not tortelli. Technically, tortelli is a type of ravioli, but it is made from a round piece of pasta, not square. Though the presentation was nice, the pumpkin inside was uneventful -- despite its rich Vitamin A content. The same goes for the gnocchi, which was served in a light vegetable sauce ($16). Thankfully, the sauce was light, but the gnocchi was too starchy-tasting.
All was good in the world when the mari monti in piombino ($36) arrived, however. The display was beautiful: Picture an oversized oval plate with large mussels and clamshells at the border centered by a swirl of perfectly al dente linguini. Combined with a few gigantic, butterflied shrimp, chunks of white fish on the sides, and a decent-sized Maine lobster tail in the center, it was a work of art that would make for a fine fresco. Plus, the delicate blanket of nonthreatening red sauce over the plate added just the right complementary flavor. My guest liked the sauce so much that he used the rest of the greasy balloon bread to sop it up. The only thing absent was the calamari promised on the menu, but it wasn't missed.
Once the bread was fully deflated, the fish stopped swimming, and the veal stopped grazing, we ventured toward the dessert menu. Our waiter recommended the ricotta cheesecake, but I was eager to sample the Bosc pear in a wine reduction with ice cream. Sadly, the restaurant was pearless. We instead settled on the tiramisu -- which was nothing out of the ordinary -- and a gelato cup with hazel nut and pistachio scoops. The gelato was really tasty until I asked the waiter for the shot of espresso mentioned in the menu. The brown liquid added an overpowering, bitter sting, and the gelato reacted by forming an icy shell.
All in all, once Rino's finds its groove, it is sure to be a hit. If the chefs pour a little less oil and the owner can keep the eatery around for a while, it should become one of Fort Lauderdale's more romantic eating destinations. Balzano said he is willing to make adjustments, though he said he is "making less mistakes because [he has] been there." He also said he is willing to work harder. If it doesn't pan out, Balzano can always make a living singing about his lost love on a Las Olas street corner, I guess. O sole mio!