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I've been asking myself what makes good service. It's not just because I've received so little of it — though a distinct lack of anything will make you question what's so great about it in the first place. There are the nuts and bolts, of course — proper wine presentation, a level of courtesy, the carefully timed arrival of plates and their efficient clearing. But truly great service rises above the obligatory. In the end, it's about care — a genuine desire to deliver a complete dining experience.
I felt that care for the first time in a long while when dining recently at Sette Bello, a year-old Italian restaurant on the northern edge of Fort Lauderdale. I was on my way back from the restroom between courses when our waiter, a large Italian man in his 40s with slicked-back hair, spotted me in the aisle. He spun around from where he was headed and rushed back to our table, where a busboy had just finished delivering our entrées. As I arrived, he removed an overturned plate from the top of my dish, set there, obviously, to keep my dinner warm. And then he apologized. "I'm very sorry," he said to us. "We should never have served the table when someone wasn't here."
To be honest, I really didn't mind — there's nothing more exciting than returning to the table to find your food already waiting to be eaten (ravenous much?). But the level of import our waiter placed on this simple aspect of service was impressive. After all, rules like "don't serve a customer when he or she isn't present" and "don't let a dish go cold" seem like common sense. Executing them properly, though, requires empathy.
6241 N. Federal Highway
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33308
If there's one intangible that the wait staff at Sette Bello has, it's empathy: the ability to discern just what a customer needs almost before he does. This isn't something you can learn; it's instinctual. An empathetic server can feel the ebb and flow of a meal. They're near the table when you need them and invisible when you don't. They know just when to fill your wine glass, when you're ready for your next course, and when you're ready to pay your bill. Mostly, they know what a customer really wants. And then, quite simply, they give it to them.
The servers at Sette Bello all seem to possess this trait, likely because they are all professionals. This dapper collection mostly of men in starched button-downs and pressed pants are not moonlighting. They're not between jobs or trying to make a quick buck. The servers here are craftsmen in the same way that the restaurant's owner, Franco Filippone, is a chef. They're his direct link to the dining room — conduits between kitchen and customer, as important a tool as a chef's tongs or his mise en place.
As such, the front and back of house at Sette Bello work in perfect synergy, best exemplified by the way our server had adopted an almost personal responsibility for everything that came from the kitchen. He didn't miss a beat when, after explaining the daily specials to my dinner guest, Donna, she asked if the house zuppa de pesce could be prepared with something other than red sauce. His confident manner turned to something consolatory. "Of course," he cooed, "I can make it with a lovely white sauce, like a sauce for a clam Vongole, but with shrimp, mussels, calamari, lobster, and a nice piece of fish."
Maybe it was just his delivery, but his command of the menu seemed limitless. "I promise you," he said, putting his fingers together in front of his face in that most stereotyped of Italian hand gestures, "you're gonna love it."
When another guest of mine, John, wanted to sample the daily-caught hog snapper Livornese ($30), he asked if the kitchen could prepare it any other way than with onions, capers, olives, and red sauce, as described. Our server — who looked like actor Danny Aiello's bigger, younger brother — seemed to weigh the options in his head for moment. "Well, I can do it oreganata with bread crumbs and a nice white wine sauce," he suggested. "Just let me make sure the chef is on board." He later confirmed the selection, and we were rewarded with a fillet of snapper so gently cooked that its milky flesh flaked slightly while retaining its vibrant, bouncy texture.
Those specials, like the zuppa de pesce and hog snapper, are a huge part of the dining experience at Sette Bello. The regular dinner menu is already extensive — consisting of a few dozen rustic appetizers, salads, pastas, and meat and seafood dishes — but Filippone adds to that nightly with nearly a dozen unique offerings, almost all of them ingredient-driven. Originally from Palermo, Sicily, Filippone knows how to let fresh ingredients shine. He's had plenty of practice. Before opening Sette Bello in late 2008, the chef did time at Fort Lauderdale's Casa D'Angelo, well-regarded for its expert renditions of Italian classics.
As the servers glowingly recount each offering, it's like spoken-word poetry aimed directly at that soft place between your stomach and heart. For the most part, the dishes hit that mark squarely. Imported burrata ($15) — a ball of fresh buffalo cheese that oozes with silky curds when sliced open — is like some perfect union between mozzarella and Brie, served with char-grilled tomato and eggplant and a drizzle of thick, sweet balsamic reduction. Fresh seafood such as diver scallops are as fat around as a wine bottle and seared beautifully on both sides ($12). Their sweet flesh is served on the half-shell, bedded in a nest of tomatoes, spinach, and bread crumbs in a light wine sauce. On the regular menu, frito misto, lightly fried calamari and halved cremini mushrooms, are battered and seasoned so gently that it's almost as if they were plucked that way from land and sea ($10). Our table loved the unfettered flavors of the creminis. "I could eat an entire plate of these," Donna said, swiping a 'shroom through the hearty tomato sauce served on the side.
Simple shouldn't be confused with easy, however, and sometimes even these dishes stray from their target, if only slightly. A salad of grilled asparagus laid over lightly dressed arugula is a good starter ($8), but what it really needed was some contrast — perhaps if the spears of asparagus had been served warm instead of chilled. A special of cold-water Mediterranean anchovies ($10) called to me like a siren song, but on the plate, they were a touch bland. Fresh anchovies are lightly oceanic, while their canned cousins are salty and overpowering, but these were neither: just plainly fried and very dry. I asked our server for a few lemons to spruce them up, which did the trick nicely.
Throughout a meal here, service is neither too formal nor too casual, a mixture that mirrors the restaurant itself. The space is laid out beautifully, framed by large windows with satiny curtains and cream-colored, textured walls. A group of columns forms a sort of alcove in the center of the room, which gives the strip-mall space the impression that it's larger than it is. Although the soft-lit space is beautifully romantic, there's also the feeling of constant activity, a result of the open kitchen that faces the center of the dining room.
Lavishing in that dining room, being waited on dutifully, it's almost impossible to resist a bottle of wine from Sette Bello's modest but varied list. You'll find a decent selection of Californian and Italian wines, and many of them extend beyond the typical pinot grigio and Sangiovese varietals. On one occasion, our server suggested a bottle of Mastroberardino Greco di Tufo ($45), a crisp wine from Campania with a citrusy tang that paired flawlessly with our snapper and a bowl of creamy penne alla vodka ($16). A lot of customers truck in their own wine, and for a small corkage fee, the staff will give it the same treatment, presenting it appropriately and, if you request, setting your bottle in an ornate ice bucket placed tableside.
If I did have a quibble about any part of the service, it would be that as the servers recite the house specials, they tend to leave out the prices. That wouldn't be so bad if costs were in line with the regular menu. But while most entrées run from $16 to $30, the specials top out around $44, that for fresh-caught Dover sole — not an absurd sum for the delicate fish, but it would still be nice to know before you order it. A bone-in, center-cut veal chop commands the same sum, but it's worth every bit. The chop is grilled to a luscious sheen of pink, then draped with melted Gorgonzola and a conservative dose of cremini- and shiitake-enhanced Marsala sauce. At nearly two inches thick, it practically towers on the plate. Just as visually impressive is a slab of tender osso buco. When the immense piece of braised veal was presented to a nearby table, a fork jutting from the marrow-filled bone in the center, the wispy-thin woman sitting behind the plate just about fell out of her chair. She took about two bites before caving in and taking the rest to go.
I can't blame her. After all, you'll want to save room for Sette Bello's desserts, housemade confections that rival the best of the menu. After an extravagant meal of wine, imported cheese, giant veal chops, and locally caught seafood, a ricotta and pumpkin cheesecake ($8) was just about the best ending I could ask for. An apple turnover, flaky pastry filled with sweet, baked apples and topped with tingly cinnamon ice cream, sounded equally enticing.
Our waiter informed us the turnover took about ten minutes to bake. Not a problem. We wanted to stay at Sette Bello as long as possible. As we sipped our coffee and waited for our dessert, one of my guests stepped up from the table. Immediately, our server appeared with a clean saucer and covered the lid of his coffee cup to keep it warm. Needless to say, I was impressed.