By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Life as da Campo Osteria Todd English has to be something like a movie. The famed Boston chef and restaurateur earned his first James Beard award in 1991. Since then, it has been a blur of television spotlights, celebrity galas, and glitzy openings. Among his vast empire of 22 outposts: A branch of his original restaurant, Olives, occupies a spot in the Bellagio in Las Vegas; an eatery bears his name aboard the Queen Mary 2; and he and It-Girl Eva Longoria share the restaurant Beso in Hollywood. It has been told that English is something of a workaholic, and the fact that he's dashing and devastatingly handsome only adds to the lore.
Like any good film, English's tale has not been without drama. Lawsuits, divorce, and health code violations have followed him in recent years, culminating in the temporary closure of two of his restaurants. Yet, he has hardly slowed. In September, English opened the Libertine inside Wall Street's decadent Gild Hall Hotel, serving upscale and up-priced pub food to bailed-out brokers. Now, hardly two months later, English has struck again with da Campo Osteria.
English is no stranger to Italian dining, but his new place skips the broader Mediterranean milieu he has employed at his other restaurants for the pastoral flavors of Northern Italy. It's located in the lux il Lugano hotel on the Intracoastal side of Fort Lauderdale beach. Taking a page from the rustic osterias of Italy, which are more often bars with some food than full-on restaurants, the concept gives more time-worn dishes like wood-fired pizza, Tuscan steaks, and simple pastas an upscale twist. The restaurant's space is narrow and long, with warm wooden tables and booths stretching past a busy open kitchen — a classic English touch. While the booths are spacious, the tables are rather cramped, especially considering that most dishes come on outsized plates. Wine glasses, too, are ostentatiously large. And oddly enough, this Osteria's bar seems an afterthought, shoehorned awkwardly into a lonely corner.
Da Campo's signature gimmick is hand-pulled mozzarella ($15), an evolution of the tableside guacamole phenomenon that won't seem to die out. In this instance, instead of watching an underpaid cook smash avocadoes in a stone molcajete, you're watching an underpaid cook rough up some curd inside a bowl of murky water. I could understand the attraction if there was some entertainment value — say, if said cook was giving you an education on cheese making while he was getting all up in your dairy products. But my questions about the process, from the origin of the curd being used to the subtleties of the craft, were met with a shrug. About the only thing our mozzarella chef could tell us was that it was easy to do — he learned how in just a few hours.
Nevertheless, the end result is worth talking about. The cheese, bathed in salty, whey-filled water, is warm and clarifying, with a singular texture that's elastic without being stringy. It's sliced into segments and prepared one of a half-dozen ways: dolce gets a drizzle of honey and spiced walnuts, caprese is livened by sun-ripened tomatoes and basil, and verde e nero is partnered with olive tapenade. We had the terra, which comes paired with luscious slices of prosciutto di Parma and sweet, if not overpowering, figs. It's finished off with ribbons of olive oil and syrupy, aged balsamic vinegar that's so silky you'll want them to leave the bottle. You'll probably find yourself swiping up what's left of it with da Campo's fabulous bread. I'd like to shake the hand of the person responsible for the grissini, slender sticks of crisp dough infused with olive oil and rosemary. The muffin-shaped focaccia is equally otherworldly, as is the walnut-and-raisin-crusted variety.
Da Campo follows the recent trend in chef-first restaurants in that its menu so kindly dictates your meal path for you. In this instance, Chef suggests you order as you go, beginning with shared antipasti and working toward primi and secondi courses. After the mozzarella, we skipped the monstrous plate of salumi ($20), opting for a salad of shaved fennel, goat cheese, and olives that's crowned with supremes of ruby red grapefruit so vibrant they were almost neon ($13). Coupled with the sweet jewels of citrus, the fennel snapped to life — it's just a shame that the breezy combination was weighed down by a too-generous dousing of vinaigrette.
One snag in English's "casual ordering" process is the tiny tables. As we ordered throughout our meal, we had to contend with the bulky, copper-studded menus. And da Campo's tables were so oddly high and its chairs so short that I started to feel like I was sitting at the kid's table during Thanksgiving dinner. Add to that the clumsy shuffle of plates and silverware by the servers, the too-loud environment, and the traveling mozzarella wagon, and what's supposed to be a leisurely meal quickly turns chaotic.
In between the trapeze act of balancing menus and small plates, it became clear da Campo is at its best when it keeps it simple. Case in point: the fleshy white anchovy filets served with olive oil crostini and vibrant, fire roasted red peppers ($11). Looking at the luscious ivory and cobalt skin of the anchovies, I could practically picture them fluttering about in the waters of the Adriatic where they were gathered. A similar thing happens with a simple salad of raw, sliced cremini mushrooms and celery leaf ($12), though it could've used a slight jolt of tartness to brighten it up.