Screw Christmas. The hell with Hanukkah. December 12 was Frank Sinatra's birthday, and did a single city hall even bother to drag out a likeness of Ol' Blue Eyes for the occasion? Or were they too busy bickering over their stupid crèches? Half the baby boomers in America were conceived to the tune of Sinatra singing All the Way, the other half under the auspices of In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. December 12 ought to be a national holiday.
There were lots of places you could have celebrated the birth of the guy who made it A-OK for a lady to be a tramp. Or if, like me, you wanted to stretch the festivities over the full 12 days, you'd have a good chance of hearing "the voice" over the sound system at dozens of restaurants in South Florida. This is because Italian food, especially of the red sauce variety, the macaroni and baked ziti and meatball variety, the "I'll kill any man who says he can make a better bracciole than my nonna" variety, isn't hard to come by in our vicinity. If you can't find an Italian meal to suit your needs and your budget, your exact degree of pickiness over how a stuffed artichoke should taste and whether it's acceptable to dump parmigiano all over your linguine alla vongole, you haven't been trying, my friend.
As it happens, there are two Italian restaurants on Federal Highway just south of Oakland Park Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale that have somehow managed to coexist nearly side by side for well over a year now, one at 2850, the other at 2980. So far, they've refrained from open warfare, perhaps because they bear only the faintest familial resemblance to each other. Papa Pistola's is your balding, loudmouthed, tenderhearted Uncle Nuncio. Kitchenetta is his drop-dead-gorgeous daughter, Bianca, who ran away to L.A. and became a movie star. Where Pistola's is silly, Kitchenetta is sexy. Where Pistola's is cozy, Kitchenetta is frigid.
Papa Pistola's and Kitchenetta
Papa Pistola's: 2980 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Open daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Call 954-630-9388.
Kitchenetta: 2850 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Open 5:50 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Call 954-567-3333.
So what's your mood? Mike Boutros, who owns a couple of restaurants in Toronto, opened Papa Pistola's two years ago (it used to be called Tony Pistola's) and named it after a Mob figure in New York, Tony Guns. There is no Papa Pistola, except in the imaginations of the proprietors, but Papa has taken on a life of his own in the back pages of the menu, where you'll find his words of wisdom about all things North-American Italian. Viz: "You know you're Italian when You netted more than 50 thousand dollars on your first communion. You are on a first name basis with at least 8 banquet hall owners. You're 6'4", can bench press 325 pounds, shave twice a day, but you still cry when your mother yells at you."
Papa Pistola's is a lot of fun. There's butcher paper on the tables, so you can spill freely. The terra-cotta-colored walls are decorated with old album covers with the original records inside: Dean Martin, Al Martino, Mantovani, Dick Contino ("The Valentino of the Accordion"). Pictures of the Rat Pack and the Sopranos. Cans of tomatoes and plastic jars full of pickled vegetables and wine bottles and Lavazza espresso cups. There's a lot of other stuff on the walls; in fact, you might say that the reigning design aesthetic here is that "More Is More."
You'll also find a bottle of wine on the table when you arrive, and if you're smart, you'll get them to open it right up. The Saturday night we dined with our party of five, the bottle was a Monte Antico, a great little Tuscan table wine that, at a discounted price of $15, filled my heart with gladness. In fact, I went home and called up Mike Boutros and asked him how come he's the only restaurateur in town to offer a decent table wine at a reasonable price. It turns out that Boutros agrees with me he thinks wine goes really well with food, particularly a nice Sangiovese with your macaroni and tomato sauce. He thinks we should all drink it all the time, not just if we're filthy rich or temporarily flush. His vendors have told him if he keeps charging such low prices for his wine, he may find himself at the bottom of the Intracoastal wearing a pair of cement shoes. Because his competition ain't gonna like it. But he's still offering his featured wines at prices under $20. Maybe Boutros should think about getting a bodyguard.
Papa Pistola's also has some of the best service around, because Boutros hires green servers and trains them himself. He told me he wants the restaurant to feel like home, but I don't know whose home. At my home, everything was struggle and strife. Fights routinely broke out, and they often ended in bloodshed. I certainly never had a lot of people fluttering around me, anticipating my every need, like the servers do at Pistola's. One of my fellow diners had merely to hunch her shoulders slightly and gaze tragically upward at the ceiling fan before our waiter had divined that she was cold and turned the fan down. Wine glasses got promptly refilled. Who was eating what even at our big piggy table, where we'd ordered several dozen dishes was remembered. Special food requests were honored, and politely.
All this is the good news. I'll tell you right now, I love this place, and I plan to go back, but not necessarily for the food. I'm going back for the convivial atmosphere and the reasonable prices, the excellent service and the cheap wine. When I want incredible food, I'm going next door to Kitchenetta.
This is not to say that our meal at Pistola's was inedible or served cold or really botched in any way. It's just that nothing was outstanding. Some of it was quite good. My recommendations are as follows:
Get the fried mozzarella ($9.95), big puffs of delicious creamy fried goodness served with marinara sauce; it drew raves from all. The pasta fagiole ($5.95) is a hearty, healthy bean and tomato soup, piping hot. Escargots on toast ($10.95), the night's special, were plentiful and garlicky and made an instant convert of one of us who had never tasted snails. We also really dug the penne Pistola ($14.95), pasta tossed in cream sauce with sun-dried tomatoes and vegetables, infused with an interesting, smoky flavor. Our resident gnocchi expert gave her dish of gnocchi, which she ordered with tomato sauce rather than basil pesto ($14.95), a B minus; she could taste no potato in the dumplings, but she liked the piquant sauce. Veal ($17.95) and snapper limone ($16.95), both with a smooth lemon, butter, and wine sauce, were flavorful and cooked perfectly, but the snapper tasted (to me) like it had seen better days.
To skip: The bruschetta, which is made, weirdly, with canned tomatoes ($7.95). The antipasto misto ($9.95): pickled vegetables from a jar, and little else a couple of pieces of salami, a single round of mozzarella. My lasagna ($17.45) was a disaster pasta sheets swimming in tomato sauce with a bit of ground beef, ricotta, and no texture at all, more like a lasagna soup. I was disappointed; it's been several decades since I've been at a weight where I could actually risk ordering lasagna, and I wanted the splurge to be worth it. As for the desserts ($4.95), like the mud pie or the cappuccino truffle, forget about it they look and taste as if they were made in a factory. And Pistola's stale, dry bread was some of the worst I've ever been served in a restaurant.
We didn't get to the risotto or the pizza, so you're on your own with those. Don't get me wrong this is definitely a restaurant where you can do well for yourself if you know what to order. Stick to the pasta, chicken, and meat dishes, order the night's specials, drink lots of wine, put your feet up, and sing along to Come Fly With Me. You know the words.
The next night, we went over to Kitchenetta to check out the Sunday sauce. Kitchenetta is everything Pistola's is not: sleek and modern, done up in artfully distressed metals, mod tangerine and shades of lime and vanilla, glass doors that open onto a patio, and a flat-screen TV showing Vittorio De Sica's classic The Bicycle Thief. Their cheapest bottle of wine is $26 for an Estancia Pinot Noir; the most expensive is a Piedmont Barbaresco from Angelo Gaja for $215. The place serves a traditional Sunday family meal, macaroni with tomato and meat sauce, once a week from 3:30 to 9 p.m., and all dishes are priced for either individual or family portions.
New Times wrote up Kitchenetta briefly right after Vincent Foti opened it last year, with a promise to return after it had worked out some kinks. So here we are, on a chilly night, shivering in the ice palace. Everything gleams and echoes off the polished surfaces this is a place to lounge around looking mysterious, not for an intimate tête-à-tête, and on cool nights, you'd better drag out the furs. Conversation is held at many decibels, which tends to focus you on the food ("Try this! It's divine!"). Fine by us. We arrived starving and in short order had procured the night's special appetizer, a plate of almost transparently thin grilled eggplant slices ($12), along with the most delicious homemade mozzarella I've ever tasted the effect is like chewing slightly salted cream. And chopped tomatoes with extra virgin olive oil. Ooooh my God! A round of flatbread came out from the wood-burning oven, puffed up like a presidential aide's ego, with those wonderful half-burnt bubbles, drizzled with more olive oil, sprinkled with coarse salt and rosemary. We felt like we had the world on a string.
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A glass of Regaleali Rosso from Sicily ($8 there would be no bottles tonight), a round, woody red wine, went perfectly with three fat risotto balls ($12) sitting in a shallow pool of marinara. I should have asked for extra marinara all their sauces are made with the less acidic San Marzano tomatoes, so they're mellow and earthy. The risotto balls were a melt-in-your-mouth concoction of risotto, mozzarella, peas, a little onion, and prosciutto, the risotto perfectly cooked, its outer coating crunchy, warming, filling. Really unimprovable.
My Sunday sauce arrived ($19), al dente rigatoni and tomatoes, a spicy-hot sausage, a fist-sized meatball, one rib, and shredded pork roast. If you've had appetizers, order this to share, along with a couple of sides; it's a hefty plate of food. Maybe because our side dishes were so spicy like the escarole, beans, and red pepper ($12) the red sauce seemed bland. Only the sausage, with its salt-and-pepper yin-yang, truly went to work on the taste buds. The big meatball was tender but too mildly flavored to generate much excitement as if it hadn't cooked all day in sauce. The rib was a little on the tough side. But dense and chewy pork roast contributed to making this plate a textural triumph.
This happy arrangement of textures and shapes makes dining at Kitchenetta such a pleasure. Each plate delights and surprises, without the over-the-top effects of other trendy kitchens. A grilled skirt steak ($18), marinated to a melting tenderness and served with a side of "Italian herb sauce" (i.e., chimichurri) was first-rate, although the roasted potatoes with it were cold. It hardly mattered. We had no room for potatoes at this point. We were done in.
The sound system at Kitchenetta that night was emitting cool and jazzy Nancy Wilson tunes we'd have to wait until we got home to spin the Sinatra. But his elegant spirit reigned. Sinatra was a man who loved his meat. He really would have dug that skirt steak.