When you enter Cafe Vico in Fort Lauderdale, a handsome older gentleman with a slick of jet-black hair in a crisp starched chef's coat will no doubt greet you at the door. With a soft accent and a kind smile that creases his eyes behind black-rimmed glasses, he'll take each lady's hand, give it a quick kiss, and turn to the gentleman and offer a short bow.
This is a routine Cafe Vico chef-owner Marco Rodriguez has been perfecting for quite some time. Like the ordering, training, prepping, and cooking, when the doors open for business, it's a standard part of his daily drill and is perhaps part of the secret to Cafe Vico's 18 years of quiet success among the city's plethora of upscale Italian restaurants.
While the man may be familiar to many, Rodriguez's last name may not be. For close to two decades, most regulars have known him as Marco Vico, the same name that he has scribed in gold ink on black business cards. The Brazilian-born chef is quick to point out that it's only for business purposes.
"People would greet me at the door and assume the restaurant name was my family name," says Rodriguez. "I didn't want to correct them, so I took it on as a second name, just like the celebrities in Hollywood change their name to sound better. It was good for business."
Rodriguez moved to the United States with his wife, Eclair, in the mid-1990s. Stateside, they took a job working side by side for a family-run Italian restaurant.
"I like to tell people I became an Italian in New Jersey," says Rodriguez. "I learned everything I needed to know about the restaurant industry from that family. The son cooked, the father worked the front, and the mother did the ordering and the prep. I was her assistant."
Over the years, Rodriguez learned the ins and outs of the business, working his way up the chain of command from dishwasher to prep, line cook, and eventually sous chef, before moving into the front of house as a busser, server, and general manager.
He also learned about true Italian cuisine. Many of Cafe Vico's best dishes began in that New Jersey kitchen, like the lasagna bolognese. Now a signature dish and longtime Cafe Vico favorite, it began as a family recipe that has become a cornerstone of this Brazilian-born chef's regular repertoire.
The mother taught Rodriguez the secret to her rich Parmesan béchamel, layered between sheets of hand-cut egg noodle pasta with lean ground beef and a touch of fresh San Marzano cherry tomato sauce. Minus the hallmark staples of stringy mozzarella and pasty ricotta cheese, it makes for a lighter, more flavorful lasagna.
At Cafe Vico today, the dish is made the same as it was more than two decades earlier and stands as one of the first recipes Rodriguez called upon when the couple relocated their family to South Florida to begin working with restaurateur Victor Velasquez. The plan was to open an Italian establishment in Fort Lauderdale. Velasquez wanted to name it Cafe Vicolo — the word for "alley" in Italian.
"But that was too long," says Rodriguez. "I suggested we shorten it to Vico, and he agreed."
Originally no more than five tables, Cafe Vico began as one of the area's best standbys for Northern Italian cuisine, a classy eatery with an extensive wine list and romantic ambiance. Side by side again, Rodriguez ran the kitchen while assisting Eclair with the front of house, and together they built a strong following. Night after night, tables were filled, cleared, and filled again.
In 1998, Rodriguez asked to buy out his partners, thus beginning the first of several expansions creating a jigsaw puzzle of doors and hallways, each new space a new room. There's the main dining room next to the kitchen, square tables set with white tablecloths that look out onto the covered patio through wood-framed floor-to-ceiling windows. Straw-colored walls are plastered with black-and-white framed photos of celebrities, arranged in various sizes, a theme that carries on to each new room. Another, smaller dining area is laid out in a similar fashion but leads into an adjoining private dining area where a single communal table can seat up to 15. Today, the restaurant can seat up to 200 guests and on busy weekends or holiday evenings will turn tables for several seatings until close.
The most recent expansion is the piano wine bar, finished last year, and with it came a new bar menu, a selection of hot and cold tapas, and an expanded liquor selection that allows for a long list of creative martinis and cocktails alongside sangria, draft beer, and even wine on tap. During happy hour, plates of the new truffle fagottini — a purse-shaped pasta filled with four cheeses and black truffle — file from the kitchen. Another addition to the bar menu, the mint- and garlic-marinated lollipop lamb chops is one of Rodriguez's new favorite dishes.
Like many old-school Italian joints, Cafe Vico's dinner menu has all the signposts of a traditional Italian restaurant: hot and cold appetizers, handmade pasta, meatballs, risotto, fish, and meats. If you like giant bowls of creamy risotto, hearty platters of veal francese, and spicy shrimp fra diavolo, you will find a soothing menu of Italian standards. Despite his South American upbringing, Rodriguez has developed an uncanny knack for understanding what's demanded of a typical trattoria, a mix of nostalgia with comfortable service and entrées executed with consistent precision.
Still, over the years, Rodriguez has given a number of traditional dishes an unconventional — yet generally successful — departure from the norm, tweaking them just so. You'll find black cherries in the chicken ravioli. The piccata — be it chicken, veal, or fish — offers a creamy lemon and caper sauce finished with fat, tangy artichoke hearts. The calamari appetizer is available steamed or grilled, in addition to the ubiquitous fried version most diners know. And the homemade papardelle — thick, ribbon-like noodles — are speckled green, each strip slick with garlic-infused oil and coiled around slices of pan-seared sausage and tender stalks of broccoli rabe.
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Among a parade of pastas — some stuffed but all hand-made five days a week — you'll find one such Rodriguez creation, the chicken ravioli. Stuffed with ricotta and minced chicken breast, each ravioli is coated in a puckeringly tart blood-red black cherry and red wine sauce mellowed with a touch of cream, making them a highlight to otherwise-straightforward offerings.
A Milanese specialty, the veal shank — or osso buco — is one of Cafe Vico's most successful dishes, another recipe handed down from years past. A 24-ounce cut is braised for several hours before it's laid to "rest" for one whole day, the secret to making the meat soft and tender, says Rodriguez. Before serving, it's pan-seared and served with a side of vegetables simmered in a white wine broth and over a bed of saffron risotto. Whether or not you're Italian, it will trigger memories of home-cooked meals made with love.
"I consider my customers to be relatives," says Rodriguez. "Almost 20 years later and we are still so successful. It makes it easy to be passionate about what I do. I feel like a big star, and my [stage] name is Marco Vico.
Cafe Vico is located at 1125 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 11 p.m. Friday; 4:30 to 11 p.m. Saturday; and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Call 954-565-9681, or visit cafevicorestaurant.com.