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What would Madonna do? It's 9 p.m., and the crowd has thinned out since we got here. We're at a briskly starched table at Trina, the year-old restaurant in the Atlantic Hotel. There's a bowl of chilled almond soup in front of me. It's a dish I'll never forget.
But I have to stop mid-spoonful to wonder. Would Madonna feel like this? Is the material girl so accustomed to a daily diet of supernaturally sensual soups that she'd wolf it down, barking instructions to her mascara handler between slurps? Just maybe she'd linger over it like I'm doing, feeling every bite spread bliss through her system. This is a soup that could transform you, if you let it. Eat it and you're an instant diva.
Trina's executive chef, Don Pintabona, has cooked for Madonna. He's also cooked for Liza Minelli, Linda McCartney, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Jordan, Jerry Seinfeld, Diana Ross, and Bruce Springsteen. Now, by some absurd stroke of good fortune, he's cooking for me.
601 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304
Region: Fort Lauderdale
Pintabona and his partner at Trina, beveragemeister Nick Mautone, are both big-shot New York restaurateurs. Pintabona came to the subtropics after a decade-long stint at Robert De Niro's Tribeca Grill, where he razzle-dazzled with inventions like "Bill's Great Wall of Tuna" (named for Bill Murray, who couldn't get enough of it). During his years at Gramercy Tavern, Mautone was one of the players behind the cocktail revolution that hit New York like a maraschino-cherry-flavored tsunami. If every Fendi-clad Barbie in Manhattan was quaffing clove-infused martinis and picking at prosciutto-wrapped figs with truffle cheese, these guys were at least partly to blame. They're the real deal. That they've landed in Fort Lauderdale and set up shop with a view of the beach is serious cause for celebration.
Glamorous, yes. But I'd turned on my pretension meter before I got here, and I've picked up hardly a blip. My gaydar is malfunctioning too. I can't tell if the guys at the next table are a couple or if they're just out on a "man date." That tells you something about Trina. You can't typecast the crowd here. And the hosts and servers all pretend -- with unshakeable blitheness -- not to notice that your shoes are designer Target and your roots could use a touch-up. They meet your needs with such pointed attention that you start to feel that you too could be on a first-name basis with Bobby De Niro.
The Atlantic Hotel is a splendiferous setting for Trina, which opened last June. The long outdoor patio faces the ocean, wafting cool salt breezes: exactly right for a menu loosely based on Pintabona's Sicilian heritage. The owner and his chef de cuisine, Mike Coldrick, take the foods of Sicily and compose variations, drawing on influences that range from memories of Pintabona's childhood kitchen, where his mother and grandmother stuffed artichokes and pounded out braciola, to his formal apprenticeships with French superchefs Daniel Boulud and Georges Blanc, to remote travels in Burma, where he learned to cook iguana. There's no iguana on the menu at Trina, but if there were, you can bet Pintabona would make it taste damned good.
The globetrotting superchef says he'd been kicking around the idea for Trina for a while, but he'd planned to open it in New York. When Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which runs the Atlantic, approached him a couple of years ago about doing an upscale restaurant, Pintabona jumped on it. "I thought [Trina] was the perfect concept for this place," he says.
It is. South Florida and Sicily share more than just a magnetic attraction for mafiosi. Both are surrounded by water. Both have been historically subject to invasions -- from Spaniards to snowbirds. Both are places where wildly different cultures clash, converge, or make peace with one another -- Cuban Republican and liberal New York Jew, Norman and Phoenician.
"Sicily is the epicenter for Mediterranean influences," Pintabona told me when I called him at home in New York, where he spends about half his time now. "As you travel through Sicily, you see that the food, architecture, music, and customs have been influenced by North Africa, Arabia, Central Europe, France, the Romans, the Greeks. That's what's always intrigued me about the island." This polyglot heritage is the backbone of Trina's menu, and the three seas that surround Sicily (the Ionian, the Tyrrhenian, and the Sicilian) keep the focus on seafood.
Even if you just drop by the bar for a quick bite, you're going to face tough choices. Scallops grilled on lavender skewers and served with rock shrimp and white beans ($10)? Chickpea fried calamari dipped in cracked pepper aioli ($11)? Or marinated, grilled octopus with potatoes, sherry vinegar, and oregano ($10)? We had the octopus, lightly charred, tender, running up and down the flavor and texture scales like a virtuoso -- bitter greeniness of oregano, sweet flesh of the cephalopod, tang of vinegar, softness of potato, crunch of croutons. It was divine.
But I left the bulk of this appetizer to my dinner partner, who'd set up barricades with the bread basket to protect her meal from incursions. I was still "experiencing" my soup. It was a special, and since Pintabona regularly revamps the menu, I can't promise you'll get to try it. It's a vichyssoise finished with almond milk, scattered with slivered Spanish Marcona almonds and halved red grapes, and decorated with a long, sweet, undulating ribbon of almond cracker. It might be the best soup I've ever eaten. I'm sprung from the loins of a father who has managed to re-create every cold soup ever served on the QE2, so this is rather high praise. I was also raised on vichyssoise; at age 8, my reward for sitting through, say, a four-hour, French-subtitled documentary about the Holocaust with my mother was a trip to Bookbinder's in Philadelphia -- their iced potato soup could somehow soothe the trauma of a full afternoon of Night and Fog. I admit I'd been emotionally primed to love the bowl in front of me. Even so...