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By Doug Fairall
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When I was a kid, my grandmother and grandfather fought their most vicious battles over scotch lowballs and plates of cannelloni at a Palm Beach Italian place called Maurice's. He was an aging artist, she a lifelong floozy and tippler 25 years his junior, and their shrill skirmishes were part of the warp and woof of the neighborhood fabric till the day his heart gave out late one afternoon as he was shuffling home. This was Palm Beach circa 1975; Maurice's was on the corner of Seminole Avenue. I can't remember if the place actually had red- and white-checked tablecloths, but I do know that an empty Chianti bottle with a candle stuck in it sat on every table, striated with ribbons of confetti-colored wax. More straw-wrapped bottles hung from the ceiling along with green and purple lamps shaped like bunches of grapes, and bad murals of the Ponte Vecchio and the Coliseum loomed on every wall. The place was as dark as a catacomb. It smelled of spilled red wine and White Shoulders perfume.
An ideal spot to wage marital war. The waitresses, being middle-aged, were discrete; they'd seen it all and knew exactly how much scotch you could swallow before they'd have to summon a dishwasher from the kitchen to guide you home. As for the menu, it was limited to mushy pasta drenched in tomato sauce, garlic rolls, fettuccini Alfredo, and chicken cacciatore. Lasagna was a hot seller. Wine was cheap and plentiful.
I don't recall all this with a whole lot of nostalgia. When you said Italian food in those days, you really knew what you were getting, and it wasn't any good. Then something happened in the early '80s. Mario Battali was still working as a pizza guy at Stuff Yer Face in New Brunswick, a long way from Babbo, but we were all starting to get hip to the idiosyncrasies of European food. In the quarter century since, gourmet Italian has become the dinner option of choice for most Americans. Well over half of the new restaurants that opened in Broward/Palm Beach in the last couple of years owe their menus and their earning potential to some region of the old boot.
How many more Italian restaurants can we take before we've jumped the shark on antipasti? It's not a question of simply going out to eat Italian anymore. Now you have to decide whether you want Tuscan, Sicilian, or Roman the shellfish of Abruzzi, the truffles of Piedmont. You need to hone your focus on kitchens where red sauce bubbles on a back burner all day versus the ones searing veal chops on a wood-fired grill. If you're hungry for pasta, is it handmade lobster ravioli you're craving or pumpkin-stuffed tortellini or squid-ink tagliolini or pappardelle with wild boar sauce?
What follows is a list of my favorites, the Italian restaurants I go back to as often as I can afford and yearn for when I can't. They may be related by blood, but otherwise, their only resemblance is that faint, lilting accent and occasionally, perhaps, the distant strains of "'O Sole Mio."
Saporissimo in Boca Raton (366 E. Palmetto Park Rd; 561-750-2333), run by a charming Tuscan couple, is set in a shabby-chic converted cottage that manages to be both slightly down-at-the-heel and highly romantic. Service (courtesy of thickly accented Signor Monegatti) is personal and picturesque. The Monegattis' menu leans toward vaguely medieval specialties of the region, particularly wild game. Boar sauce, thick elk chops, rabbit cooked in casserole, quail, venison osso buco, wild duck, and pheasant are house specialties; all the pastas porcini-stuffed ravioli, for instance are homemade. They import a scrumptious, creamy burrata cheese from Italy. Their veal piccata, festooned with truffles and foie gras, is the best I have ever tasted. This one's expensive, a terrific choice for anniversaries and birthdays.
New to the scene: Il Cioppino in Lantana (210 E. Ocean Ave.; 561-588-1420) is also family-run and offers a gorgeous outdoor patio and a glowing, warm interior. After pacing outside with our cell phones, we were warned by the maitre d', who cocked one jovial eyebrow, that we needed to put the phones away and give our stomachs "a rest" before dinner. Named for the famous fish stew, Cioppino specializes in seafood particularly an ethereal white sea bream called orata, flown in from Italy a couple of times a week, grilled whole until its skin is brown and crisp, and filleted tableside. They do a lovely tuna carpaccio with giant capers and tiny, spicy clams and mussels steamed in wine with red pepper. I could eat Cioppino's homemade squid ink taglioline, served with grilled shrimp and steamed clams, every day for the rest of my life. It's out-of-this-world and unlike any other dish in South Florida. Expensive.
Ruggero's Bistroin Fort Lauderdale (2671 E. Oakland Park Blvd.; 954-563-4683) appears to be a semi-luxe and genial hangout for a clientele mostly down from Long Island and mostly friends of the owners (one is a Harley dealer, another a retired boxer). This is Sinatra territory: a veal entrée with spinach and prosciutto is named in honor of "The Voice." A huge appetizer bowl of chicken livers in "Albanese" sauce with hot peppers over grilled bread rubbed with Marsala will forever change the way you think of chicken livers; "Mama's everyday sauce," passed down from a family recipe and made with fiery sausage, braised pork, and meatballs over rigatoni, is calculated to suit a big man's appetite. Stiff martinis and live piano music, moderate prices.