Bova, Get Ova Yerself

Beneath all the goopy PR, Bova really is extraordinary

"Here's something unique," Michelle Soudry says. "Bova has a full water menu." Soudry is director of public relations at the Gab Group, the boutique PR firm handling the explosive pre- and post-intelligence on Ristorante Bova in Boca Raton.

"Um," I say. "Like, they're serving a lot of seafood?"

Soudry's tinkle of laughter emanates from the cell phone I've got wedged between shoulder and ear. "No," she says. "Like bottled water, from all over the world."

Joe Rocco
Joe Rocco

Boy, do I feel dumb. Suddenly, hot restaurants are offering not only "sparkling" versus "still" but intercontinental aquas complete with explicative paragraphs. Perusing Bova's water menu, you'll learn that Hildon is "an English mineral water [with] a well balanced, clean pure taste [that] has become a byword for style in the restaurant and hotel world." You'll also be made aware that Ducale "is a pure and light mountain water that flows from deep eternal springs."

I'd love to wring the neck of the copywriter who came up with these deeply inane musings. The PR hype on the flash new Ristorante Bova, which opened right before Christmas, is flowing all right — not so much like sparkling Fijian aquifers as like the famous 40 days and 40 nights of a certain Biblical cataclysm. Surely you've heard the news? Tony and Laurie Bova, who have operated some of the most beloved Italian restaurants in South Florida (Mario's of Boca, Mario's Tuscan Grill, Grinder's Hot Grill) have, judging from the look of the place they've converted in the old Mario's Tuscan Grill location on Federal Highway, put all their eggs into one gleaming new basket — this one composed of marble, mirrors, and silver.

If you make the grave mistake of judging Bova by its swag — if you venture, say, to its website — you might be tempted to posit that this newly crowned emperor of Boca dining is parading around without a single stitch of clothing on. From the woozy trance background Muzak to the choice overlapping quotations ("Dramatic. Contemporary. Revolutionary.") — all of them straight from the mouths of the PR mavens and consultants who gave birth to this overwrought "bold new dining concept," here is some of the most shamelessly baroque advertising ever devised. I laughed so hard I almost wet my pants at the triumphant coup de grâce:

BOVA Will Make You Feel

As If

YOU'VE ARRIVED.

Mind you, you haven't arrived at all. You'll just feel as if you have. Which is almost as good, isn't it? You schmuck.

The sad-happy news is that this lathery PR is unnecessary. It's the equivalent of smothering a very refined confection — a piece of Fauchon chocolate, for instance — with half a can of Reddi-wip. Scoop off all the froth and you'll find that Bova is in fact a beautiful and elegant space with a vibrant, creative menu. It may turn out to be among the best Italian restaurants in South Florida.

A meal here is heavenly in many senses. Your eye is engaged and soothed by the restraint and taste of the designers — Studio K Architects and Michael Brosche Associates Interior Design — who have created a series of interconnected spaces simultaneously open and intimate. Rooms are made luxuriously cozy with soft leather booths, diaphanous curtains, carefully placed floral arrangements. Views are partially screened by mahogany cases holding crystal stemware, given visual interest with a floor-to-ceiling waterfall and reflective mirrors. An open grill with a wood-burning oven and a gigantic rotisserie rotating golden-skinned chickens and ducks lends warmth to rooms that might have seemed too cerebral and chilly. Everything is silver and white. The napkins are white, and so are the serving pieces. There are pale marble tables and snowy curtains and elaborate candelabra holding alabaster tapers. The floor is cream-colored concrete. Short of floating in on a cloud-carriage drawn by a winged Pegasus, it's hard to imagine how the total effect could be any more celestial. Enter the gates of this earthly paradise and feel that your soul has been scrubbed.

Maybe that's the significance of the water menu: ceremonial baptism. Over a cleansing glass of cold Ducale ($6.75 per bottle), which actually tasted a lot like melted icicles, my spouse and I agreed that for sheer deliciousness, nothing beats New York City tap water (not, regrettably, offered at Bova). We couldn't help ribbing our waiter — would our aqua best compliment fish or meat? Bless him; he took it in stride. Bova had been open only a few days, and our young man had a "deer in headlights" look of barely controlled panic, as if tonight were a final exam he'd spent the past 86 hours cramming for. What with the 12-page main menu (small plates, antipasti, pizzas, salads, paninis, pasta and risotto, seafood, signature specialties, steaks and chops, side dishes) the desserts, the wines, and the water, plus all the necessary rituals and techniques, your heart had to go out to him.

Deciding what to eat requires a careful winnowing away of delectable possibilities — the house-cured king salmon, the crab salad, the ahi tuna tasting and the carpaccio tenderloin, the wood-oven pizzettes, the artisanal Italian meats, and the eggplant involtini. Relinquishing each dish, putting it off for another day, is a test of nerves. At the end of this harrowing process, we finally settled on meatballs in parmesan brodo ($12) served with Tuscan kale and cannellini beans. And a bowl of clams and mussels "guazzetto" ($11) in pinot grigio with cannellini beans and braised artichokes.

This intelligent menu, which Tony Bova is calling "Nuovo Classico," is presumably a collaboration with his executive chef, Peter Masiello, trained at the Culinary Institute of America and thoroughly apprenticed throughout Italy and New York (most recently, Masiello was executive chef at the Pelican Hotel in South Beach). There was nothing terribly nuovo, perhaps, in my meatball dish — it was a flawlessly executed classic. The veal and pork meatballs were dense and tender in a wonderfully refined veal broth sprinkled with grated parmigiano, meltingly soft white beans, and velvety strips of kale. This dish was triumphant. Ditto the clams and mussels steamed in pinot grigio, the briny, chewy little shellfish balanced by silky textures of artichokes and beans. The combination of flavors was irresistible.

We also split a finely chopped insalata mista ($9) of soft Bibb lettuce, radicchio, arugula, radishes, and a delicious crown of applewood-smoked bacon and gorgonzola, tossed in a light vinaigrette.

For reasons that never became clear, we weren't offered bread with appetizers or salad. Maybe the chef thinks too much bread ruins the appetite, and he's probably right. Still, we would have welcomed a little hunk of something to sop up our superb broths. Instead, bread was offered between courses, focaccia hot from the wood-fired ovens, sprinkled with salt and drizzled with olive oil. It was excellent.

I'd ordered homemade maccheroni in a Sicilian preparation ($16) of braised cauliflower, shallots, toasted bread crumbs, roasted garlic, parsley, and mint. My partner opted for braised short ribs "in padella" ($30), with autumn vegetables and mashed potatoes.

I wanted my Sicilian maccheroni to work better for me. I love the ingredients separately — chunky, chewy pasta, smoky cauliflower florets, the sweet bite of shallots and roasted garlic, the green pungency of parsley. Maybe it was the mint. I know Sicilians use mint with tomatoes and anchovies, for instance, or with roast chicken. But here it unbalanced the flavors and sapped the dish of vitality. Of course, I ate the whole thing. It wasn't that bad. I just wish I'd ordered something else — maybe the barrel-cut filet mignon with lobster tail-oreganata and asparagus risotto ($38); or the veal chop with chanterelles and porcini mushrooms and cipollini onions ($38); the wood-fired rotisserie chicken with polenta cake ($23); a wild salmon "agra dolce" with tomatoes, butter beans, and haricots verts ($25); or a pizzette della trattoria with tallegio cheese, sliced pears, and pancetta ($12).

Spouse took prizes for choosing short ribs in padella. Short, of course, is a completely misleading term for what came to the table, roughly the size and shape of a police baton. Only you'd have trouble beating anybody senseless with this melting and entirely boneless piece of meat. Short ribs are essentially a magic trick: an inferior cut too tough for anything but long, slow braising in wine. When done right, in the Tuscan style, as these were, they're luscious, laced with fat, practically falling apart with a prod of the fork, a sponge for hearty flavors. With buttery whipped potatoes and a medley of root vegetables, this is a heavy, warm-hearted winter meal. A gastronomic luxury.

A crumbly apple crostata ($9) — a small freshly baked pie — and an espresso ($4), plus a glass of house-made lemoncello (vodka infused with lemon zest, $8) made a fine dessert. I hate to cede a place to my other local Italian culinary loves, but repeat visits (which I'm already planning) may eventually give Bova the edge. Yes, it's all very glamorous. But don't let the footlights fool you — there's more than smoke and mirrors here. We felt like we'd arrived — and the place we'd ended up was actually a splendid meal.

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