I didn't think much of a café named after a Lamborghini when the Tonino Lamborghini Caffé Corsa debuted in the newly opened Village at Gulfstream Park earlier this year. I mean, as a kid, I certainly obsessed over those fast, red pieces of machinery. Like dozens of my male classmates, the margins of my elementary school notebooks were filled with the images of hand-drawn Countaches, their sleek lines racing across European motorways. But 20-plus years later, that fantasy has been muffled. Now, the idea of owning a $400,000 sports car — let alone dining in a restaurant themed after one — has about the same appeal to me as riding a unicorn down Gulfstream's dirt horse track.
Actually, the latter sounds much cooler.
Still, when I stopped to peruse the menu outside of Tonino Lamborghini one night a few months back, I was genuinely surprised. Judging from Gulfstream Park's other chain-oriented offerings, I expected to find a sports-car version of the Hard Rock Café — a dumbed-down menu of Italian "greatest hits" designed more to sell branded T-shirts than to satisfy any real craving. But what was written there actually seemed pretty damned authentic. There was antipasto and light salads made with Parmesan and arugula; sliced, cured meats like culatello, a sort of prosciutto made with wild boar; and finocchiona, a dry, peppery salami. Lightly topped pizzas anchored a section of informal fare along with house-made pastas napped with fine imported ingredients. Fresh-caught fish, veal, and beef anchored a series of unpretentious entrées, each clocking in under $30. One dish in particular, the bucatini all Norma, caught my eye. It featured thick bucatini pasta, eggplant sautéed with fresh tomatoes and basil, and cubes of meaty swordfish. Needless to say, I was intrigued.
Tonino Lamborghini Caff Corsa
Tonino Lamborghini Caff Corsa, 501 S. Federal Highway, Hallandale Beach. Call 954-456-4500. Open for dinner Monday through Friday and for brunch and dinner on weekends.
In truth, it's Tonino Lamborghini's understated menu — not its sports-car heritage — that's the real draw behind the 3-month-old restaurant. Its namesake owner is indeed the only son of Ferruccio Lamborghini, the man who planted dreams of speed in the hearts (and crotches) of school-aged boys everywhere. Tonino's aspiration for fine Italian design has led him to create fashion accessories, watches, and even espresso machines, each emblazoned with the family name and logo. When he made the jump to food — perhaps the ultimate expression of Italian craftsmanship — he found this spot in burgeoning Gulfstream Park, tapping former Bice chef Paolo Del Papa for the gig.
It's because of Del Papa's presence that Tonino Lamborghini rises above its sports-car image — the soft-spoken chef from Viterbo, Italy, has a knack for letting simple flavors shine. I actually lucked into meeting him on my first visit to the restaurant in March. A friend and I had popped into the place looking for a reasonably priced bite to eat in the rambling outdoor fashion mall when we ran into a journalist buddy of mine enjoying a multicourse meal served by the chef himself.
Del Papa graciously invited us to join her, and I'm glad we did. We practically ate out of his hands as he delivered course after course of stunningly simple Italian food. And we had nary a complaint, save for personal taste — our journo hostess felt the fennel coated on the crusted ahi tuna overpowered the delicate fish. Meanwhile, my other friend had pointed out that the eggplant caponata paired with it managed to mellow the flavors out nicely. But we cooed unilaterally at a piece of branzino married with lemon and artichoke, so perfectly cooked that the flesh flaked off the skin with even the gentlest of nudges, all while retaining its toothy texture.
Since I was dining alongside an invited guest that night (full disclosure: I conduct each of my restaurant reviews anonymously and always pay for my meals in full), I tempered my enthusiasm a bit. But if the average level of food and service could stand up to this display, I thought, Tonino Lamborghini could be a real hit.
Some friends and I returned to the restaurant a few weeks later to see just how it held up. We were hoping to find the place busy, but even at 8 p.m. on a Friday, the whole of Gulfstream Park was fairly quiet. We shuffled inside the restaurant with its Diablo Red walls framed with black tile, toward a table hugging the featureless black bench that spans the entire middle portion of the space.
The layout at Lamborghini is definitely a problem. It would've been easy for the restaurant's designers to blanket the space in stock images of growling sports cars. Instead, it's designed to look something like an upscale European café, the same kind of slick, modern space you might find serving espresso to well-dressed Italians in Bologna or Torino.
I can really appreciate that the designers wanted to showcase the sleekness of Italian design. But the result doesn't exactly translate. Everything inside is flat and featureless — the blank, black tables collapse against the black tile and the black trim; the ruddy lights conspire with the red walls to cast a throbbing pink sheen across the entire restaurant. The few sepia-toned photos of old Italian airplanes and autos that do offer a change of pace end up making you feel more like you're eating inside a darkroom rather than a café.
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.
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.
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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.