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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.
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!