Triple Indemnity

Three big names serve up one big meal at Ruggero's

I settled in for the long haul.

The martini was as cold and stiff as the contents of a mortuary drawer. The table behind me placed its order. "Not too heavy on the garlic," one of them told the waiter. "I can't take the garlic anymore; it makes me sick to my stomach."

"This guy's a wuss," said his friend. "And don't get me started on Long Island. The place is a hole, not fit for human habitation. One way in, one way out."

Joe Rocco

Location Info

Map

Ruggero's Bistro and Martini Bar

2671 E. Oakland Park Blvd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Fort Lauderdale

Details

Open for lunch Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. till 4 p.m. Dinner daily from 5 till 11 p.m. Call 954-563-4683.
2671 E. Oakland Park Blvd., Fort Lauderdale

The chicken livers and the asparagus plate arrived, and I lost track of their conversation. One bite of those livers and I'd started to feel giddy. Another bite and I was tearing up. They were as silky and fragrant as the pair of stockings you've just helped somebody out of. Tossed with sautéed onions, a splash of wine, and very hot pepper rings — a stroke of genius. Served over buttery crostini rubbed with a dash of Madeira. Scattered with chopped parsley. This appetizer would have served six and was richer than the coffers of an Atlantic City casino. It was the most meltingly divine concoction I've ever wrapped my tongue around. "Whoa," I thought. "Steady there."

Hard act to follow, but the asparagus, gently sautéed and wrapped in airy, salty prosciutto, drizzled with syrupy balsamic vinegar, and partnered with a fresh, tart green salad, was as cool and classy as the livers were hot-to-trot. "Bring me the eggplant appetizer and the panzanella salad," I said to the waiter. He gave me a serious look. But he brought the food.

Panzanella salad. Crisp golden croutons tossed with halved cherry tomatoes, roasted red peppers, capers, chopped garlic, shredded fresh basil, and a balsamic vinegar/extra virgin olive oil dressing set between four points of mildly bitter endive and sprinkled with a few fat curls of parmeggiano Regiano. Heavy on the garlic, but otherwise a sharp, clear salad to spur any flagging appetite. A plate of thinly sliced and grilled eggplant, just slightly crisp at the edges, was layered with creamy homemade mozzarella and smoky red peppers, sprinkled with fresh basil, and dusted with grated parmesan. Put it in your mouth and it dissolves into waves of flavor.

"I'll have the crispy skinned yellowtail snapper, Mama's Everyday Sauce, the veal Sinatra, and the pork tenderloin," I told the waiter when he came to clear away my appetizers.

Meanwhile, Hackie Reitman had come along and sat down with the table of guys behind me. He was a looming, dark man almost perfectly square, built like a prizefighter. Handsome face, with a great set of eyebrows. A nose you'd never know had been broken "more than a few times" over the years. His thighs were big and meaty. They made me think about that pork tenderloin I had coming. I tucked my napkin under my chin.

The night's special, crispy skinned yellowtail snapper ($24.95), had been butterflied and pan-fried in a lot of butter. The fish itself didn't have an overdose of flavor, but it was moist and luscious with butter, and the chewy, large-grained couscous and thin ribbons of carrot, zucchini, and yellow squash, which tasted like they'd been sautéed with a touch of vinegar, were warm and mellow (this dish actually reheated perfectly the next day). Veal Sinatra ($21.95) set a layer of tenderly sautéed spinach between two pale slices of veal, topped with a little bit of prosciutto and melted provolone and wrapped in a Madeira/portabella sauce that far outclassed its competitors elsewhere, just like the guy it was named after.

Now, if Chef Luis DeGennaro's mama actually made him the gravy he's serving "every day" instead of just on Sundays, he's a lucky son of a gun. Ruggero's "Everyday Gravy" is a spicy and fragrant tomato sauce, larded with sweet, sautéed onions and chunks of tomato. It comes with one whole, peppery Italian sausage; a fine, dense meatball that has sponged up all the sauce flavors; and a chunk of pork the size of Reitman's fist. It's all mixed up with chewy giant rigatoni and a coating of grated parmesan (the ricotta cheese had gone mysteriously missing, I noted). "Nobody has ever finished this plate of gravy in one sitting," my waiter told me. There was a note of challenge in those words. "Fly away, baby," I said. "And bring me a glass of Gabbiano."

I was just polishing off my pork tenderloin ($23.95) as the piano bar struck up the final song of the night, a jazzy rendition of the famous aria from Carmen. My tenderloin had been stuffed with sautéed mushrooms, drizzled with a viscous wine reduction, and nestled between a sculptural swirl of mashed potatoes and the crispest, buttered baby French beans you'll ever want to meet. I put down my fork, slathered a piece of soft Italian bread with sun-dried tomato hummus and a little herb butter, and raised my wine glass in the direction of the kitchen. "What's for dessert?"

"Black and white chocolate mousse pie," said the waiter at my elbow. "$7.95. It's excellent. Light as a feather." Turned out he was not telling a lie.

It was the first night of the rest of my life, and I never looked back: The beginning of a long, sweet relationship with Joseph the maitre d'. He lets me call him Joe Cadillac now. We've had some adventures, Joe and me. But that's another story.

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