By Nicole Danna
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The guy looming over our table would be scary if you met him in some pitch-black alley at 4 a.m. For one thing, he's big. Pitted face, great bushy brows. For another, he's holding something heavy in his hands. "Excuse me," he says. "My English. Is not so good."
Our host, Giancarlo Monegatti, takes a deep breath. "Tonight's specials," he booms. "First we have the homemade pasta. We have the ravioli with ricotta e spinachi." He tilts his tray, and we can see what he's pointing to: a round ravioli the size of a tea saucer with a huge hump in the middle.
This is a demented hockey puck, not a ravioli,I think.
366 E. Palmetto Park Road
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Region: Boca Raton
Next up: "Ravioli with the porcini, mushrooms." These are three-by-three inch squares, lightly dusted with flour. "Ravioli with shrimp. Ravioli de caccia mista."
He points: Each is a different shape, texture, color. "We have the gnocchi, homemade. We have the pappardelle, the vermicelli, the tagliatelle. All homemade." He's gesturing with a big, callused finger at carefully woven nests of pasta, in shades of vanilla, sage, rose. "We can put this one with cuttlefish and black ink sauce. Or truffle and porcini. Or maybe just a light simple tomato with basil. You like cream sauce? Pesto? Something with smoked salmon? Anything you want."
Our table of eight, stunned, exchanges can you believe this? glances. Our host inhales, puts down his tray, picks up another. It's brimming with fresh whole fish. "Sea bass. We put with some herbs, some butter. Wonderful. Trout. Fillet of sole. Salmon. Fresh octopus we cook in a white wine."
I've zoned out temporarily. The fish he's showing us look as if they'd swim off nonchalantly if you flipped them into a body of water. And I'm looking around the room. It's tiny. Sunday night, and other than our rowdy extended family, only two other couples are eating here. I don't get it.
A night out at Saporissimo feels slightly unreal. Here's this little Tuscan restaurant, a block or two south of swanky Mizner Park and its shoulder-to-shoulder Boca tourists. The restaurant is owned by a peripatetic husband and wife originally from the island of Elba (think Napoleon), with only a couple of beautiful, black-eyed Roman boys for help. As far as I can tell, few words have enshrined this place -- a Google search turned up one measly paragraph in the Herald last year about how owners Giancarlo and Anna Maria Monegatti had closed their Coral Gables restaurant and moved north.
Monegatti picks up another tray. "We have elk chop, just came today. Osso buco, very special, made with venison. Quails cooked in casserole with polenta. And we have wild duck."
He's finally finished. Beaming with satisfaction. Waiting for questions. I raise a hand tentatively -- "Do you have the rabbit cacciatore tonight?"
The man's expression literally wilts. "We are out of rabbit tonight," he says. His face is one big mask of lugubrious woe.
My brother kicks me under the table. "Nice work." I'm reminded of Vatel, the royal French chef who offed himself when the fish didn't arrive for the king's banquet. I don't think Giancarlo Monegatti would do anything that drastic, but his unhappiness at my perceived disappointment hangs in the air over our table, a sodden cloud. Then his face brightens. "We have beautiful rabbit sauce, for the papardelle!" he boasts.
The question I keep returning to all night, and for days afterward, recurs: How do they do this? Saporissimo (the word means something like "extremely delicious" in Italian) has enchanted me. I'm also enchanted by this hulking, beaming man, who grabs your hand for a vigorous shake and an introduction at the door. I'm enchanted by the menu -- from the octopus and celery salad with balsamic vinegar brought specially from Modena ($19.95), the Tuscan soup with farro ($7.95) or the ribolita with black kale and cannelini beans ($8.99) to the "oxtail recipe from Rome" ($22.95). And I'm enchanted by the ever-so-slightly threadbare, if thoroughly charming, décor. The enclosed porch we're sitting in looks like the shabby-chic rooms of a thousand little trattorias in every corner of Italy. It's clean, bright, and nondescript, except for a dozen framed articles about Signore and Signora Monegatti hung on the wall above us -- reviews of their last restaurant, Il Giramondo. Most enchanting is the feeling of being embraced, well taken care of, attended to, with genuine and bountiful generosity.
The Monegattis close to spend the month of July in Tuscany. By the time you read this, though, they should just about be back in Boca, turning on the lights and shaking out the tablecloths. Anna Maria will have brought back Tuscan oils, rare herbs, odorous porcini, and maybe smuggled in a salami or two. She'll have fired up the computer and ordered wild boar from Texas to sauce her gnocchi. She'll be restocking the refrigerator with pheasant and rabbit, and ordering her fish from Spain.
We started with bowls of zuppa di farro($7.95), a classic Tuscan dish, made with the labor-intensive grain (we call it spelt) grown for centuries in the mountainous regions of Garfagnana. Simmered with borlotti beans, tomatoes, sage, rosemary, garlic, and basil, it becomes a hearty supper. Anna Maria, who does most of the cooking (Giancarlo says he only fillets the fish), has a lighter hand with her seasonings, particularly salt, than most chefs. Some of us found a few dishes, like this farro soup, too bland. I wasn't one of them -- I think salt is the unimaginative chef's seasoning of first resort. I doted on its dense, chewy textures and complex, herby broth.