By Nicole Danna
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With all those sharp angles, it's also unduly loud in there. "This place is badly in need of some baffles," one of my friends said.
The food, at least, does some of the buffering. Each table starts off with a basket of olive oil-soaked focaccia and a trio of dipping sauces including a tray of pepper-flecked ricotta cheese and a sort of pesto made with sun-dried tomatoes, all of which is nice but not stunning. We decided to compliment that by ordering a spread of salumi and marinated vegetables that the menu organizes in a way that lets you pick and choose as many as six choices of each for a set price (anywhere from $3 to $21).
The quality of the stuff is impossible to impugn. I gobbled down slivers of cacciatorini, dried Italian sausage studded with creamy pieces of pork fat, and savored that fab culatello, silken waves of slightly gamey ham made from wild pork. We spread sweet-but-not-too-sweet eggplant caponata across the billowy flatbread that comes with the antipasto platter and forked up marinated Garta and Cerignola olives. The only thing we didn't dig was the odd-shaped tray the antipasti are served on. The long dish was just too big for our smallish table.
501 S. Federal Highway
Hallandale Beach, FL 33009
Region: Hallandale Beach
In addition to the antipasto, Tonino does some modest pizzas that are perfect for sharing. A mushroom and goat cheese pizza ($14) laced with caramelized onion and a blend of wild mushrooms was earthy and full of flavor, easily the star of the show. Another pie pairs salty bacon with fresh clams and little dollops of ricotta ($15), while a vegetarian pizza makes use of roasted cauliflower and taleggio cheese ($13). If only the dough were slightly crisper and thinner, these pizzas would be worth a visit on their own.
Of course, not every dish comes out as wonderfully at Tonino. A second helping of the Mediterranean branzino ($29) I had previously tried would've been fine had it not been so outrageous the first time around. Maybe it was that the concentrated lemon flavor I remembered had dulled a bit in a pool of sauce sitting at the bottom of the plate or that the fish wasn't cooked to quite such perfection, but something was missing. I also couldn't get revved up over a side of broccoli rabe with garlic and red pepper ($5), a fairly artless incarnation of the Italian classic.
But where Del Papa and staff really motor is with the house-made pasta. Great Italian pasta has such a magical quality — the starch is firm but creamy, yielding to the tooth with only the slightest pressure. And when sauced, the condimento doesn't resign to float just above the pasta. Instead, there's a melding of sauce and starch the way I imagine the clutch melts into gear in a superexpensive car.
Del Papa's pasta has that attribute. It's in his fettuccine with wild mushrooms and truffle oil ($19), the pungent umami completely coating the flat noodles. And it's definitely in the bucatini all Norma, which I finally got to try. To my surprise, the swordfish is what really makes this authentic Sicilian dish work. Those chunks of perfectly cooked seafood lend the hollow pasta a fleshy bite and deep, meaty flavor without feeling heavy like sausage or beef. Meanwhile, the earthy-sweet eggplant and thin veil of light tomato send the hearty pasta into overdrive. I asked my waiter, a young man with billowy hair, if the dish was popular. "I've actually never had anyone order it before," he said matter-of-factly. "You're the first."
But hopefully not the last. If Gulfstream Park is ever going to compete with the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, it needs places like Tonino Lamborghini to thrive. Already, this authentic Italian restaurant is somewhat obscured by its slightly cheesy image — toss chain eateries like Texas de Brazil, Cantina Laredo, III Forks, and Brio (inauspiciously located right next door) and it will be easy for the place to get lost in the mix. But Del Papa's food is rare and exciting. It's not necessarily sleek or hyperstylized, but just like the look of that famous roadster, it's unmistakably Italian. That's an obsession I'll never grow out of.