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Columbus Day Unplugged

Joe Rocco

When the International Federation of Competitive Eating polled 1,000 "eating athletes" for its Columbus Day pasta poll in 2003, it discovered that in matters fettuccini, there's a woeful historical ignorance among our pasta-eating elite. Only 43 percent of the mostly male respondents, weighing in between 151 and 200 pounds, correctly elucidated the etymology of fettuccini Alfredo, identifying Alfredo di Lelio as the inventor of this ubiquitous favorite. "A full 30 percent incorrectly said it referred to dining outside (which is, in fact, al fresco)" the IFOCE announced, "and 13 percent thought it referred to Michael Corleone's brother in The Godfather (who was, in fact, Fredo Corleone). Sadly, for historians, 11 percent of respondents believed that Alfredo sauce was named after Frederick the Conqueror."

There are Italian-cuisine snobs who wouldn't deign to sniff at a plate of fettuccini Alfredo, much less put any of it in their mouths. But I am not one of those snobs. I don't give a hoot if Alfredo di Lelio whipped up the dish that made him immortal as bland pabulum to soothe his pregnant wife, who, having gone off food entirely, could be coaxed to swallow only a little something when presented with a bowl of fresh noodles mixed with butter and parmesan. Nor does it bother me that di Lelio later razzle-dazzled the unschooled palates of American movie stars and moguls at his eponymous restaurant by tossing up great vats of the stuff tableside. I don't care that fettuccini Alfredo is basically the Roman version of mac and cheese, suitable only for bambinos and grown-up Italians who have to "eat white" because they don't feel so good. I'm solidly with the 17.5 percent of IFOCE respondents who report that they'll happily dig in to a mess of fettuccini at least "10 times a month."

Americans owe their romance with fettuccini to Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Honeymooning in Rome in the summer of 1920, the famous silent-screen duo had it prepared by extravagant Alfredo himself, and they were hooked enough to go back every night for another round. When they got home to Hollywood, Fairbanks and Pickford made sure their favorite chefs learned the recipe. Restaurant Alfredo Imperatore still serves it, expensively and largely to tourists.

Fettuccini may be the only food on Earth that remains unimproved by the addition of butter and cream. A good "white" fettuccini requires neither. There's no cream in the original fettuccini Alfredo, and at Romantico Ristorante in Pompano Beach, chef-owner Michael di Bella is such a purist that he doesn't even use butter — much less garlic, parsley, white flour, or any other faux ingredient. This tiny neighborhood trattoria, which could hardly seat a single extended Italian family, is run by Michael; his wife, Yolanda; and their adorable baby daughter, Rosalina. Di Bella earned his fettuccini chops from mentor Tonino Tizzano, Romantico's previous owner. Tizzano reputedly imported his method from Modena. Here's how you make it:

Take one gigantic wheel of imported Parmigiano Reggiano, cut it in half, and scoop out the center to make an enormous bowl. Add an inch or two of water to soften the cheese, and let it rest until dinnertime on a center table in your dining room. When a customer orders the fettuccini alla Romantico, take your soft, fresh, homemade fettuccini, cooked al dente, and throw it into the parmesan wheel with some pasta water. Toss the fettuccini, simultaneously scraping around the Parmigiano bowl to incorporate plenty of cheese, with great gusto and a show of muscle. Add a grinding of pepper.

We experienced this grand spectacle of the fettuccini, performed by handsome young Michael di Bella, on Columbus Day Eve, the most politically incorrect of holidays. We'd been nursing a nostalgic yen for some down-home Italian-American cooking. The next day, we knew, Antonin Scalia would be leading the Long Island Columbus Day parade, and thousands of Italian families were going to be sitting down to the kind of sauce-heavy fare my Sicilian spouse's forebears used to eat when they lived in Brooklyn, way before Christopher Columbus was demoted from semi-saint to "slave-trading Indian killer." Romantico, it turns out, got its start under the aegis of the Tizzano brothers on Long Island, which is heavily populated by the toughest second- and third-generation food critics any restaurateur will ever face. You either get your clams oreganata right or you slink away in disgrace. Tonino Tizzano got it right, then replicated his recipes in Pompano Beach when he opened Romantico in 1998. Last year, wanting to retire, he handed over the place to his protégé, 25-year-old di Bella.

Di Bella has kept Tizzano's menu, along with 30 or 40 rotating specials, a solid wine list that leans heavily toward the boot (you'll find specials like Amarone, $85, chalked on the blackboard), and Tizzano's signature dishes. Tizzano taught di Bella his secret recipes for fettuccini, scaloppine Romantico, veal, everything eggplant, fresh mozzarella, and desserts like panettone bread pudding and Italian cheesecake. Since he doesn't have a walk-in cooler, di Bella says he shops daily for produce, fish, and meat — sometimes venturing next door to the wonderful Caffe Roma market for staples like Marsala. He makes his own desserts from scratch, except for one luscious imported profiterole. And he stays in touch with Tizzano almost constantly for advice, support, and new recipes Tizzano picks up during trips to the old country.

Tucked into a corner table in this cozy little space, along with several multigenerational families, handsome couples, and baby Rosalina sleeping sweetly in her stroller, we began our Columbus Eve feast with a plate of caponata ($9). This Sicilian peasant dish is an intense, almost meaty, cool appetizer of spicy chunks of sautéed eggplant, earthy halved black olives, and capers tossed in a dressing of balsamic vinegar with fresh basil leaves and parsley and served alongside roasted sweet red peppers and chunks of parmigiano Reggiano. It was terrific and would have been even better with some fresh bread — our basket was filled with rather unappetizing toast, stale end-of-the-week leftovers with all the mouth-feel of hardtack.

But who needs bread when you've got noodles? We split the fettuccini alla Romantico ($16) as our primi piatti: gossamer homemade noodles, richly flavored by the parmesan but still amazingly delicate, salty-sweet, luxurious. The experience was like eating shredded silk. Romantico's version bears almost no relation to the gummy, oversalted, lugubrious fettuccinis we've come to hate.

Once you get to know Romantico, apparently, you learn that the printed menu — a few pastas, two chicken and two veal dishes, plus a fish of the day, a soup of the day, and a handful of salads and appetizers — constitutes only a list of suggestions. You're welcome, indeed encouraged, to depart from the plan. Going off-menu is like going off-road; you might get lost, but you're in for an adventure. Nightly specials might include fresh clams (the table next to us got the last order), fried calamari, snapper "marechiara," veal Marsala, osso buco, a variety of shellfish. If there's a special dish you love and crave — something like the stuffed breast of veal your mama used to make — call ahead by a few days and di Bella will provide. You can get veal, eggplant, or chicken parmigiana any old time, though you won't find them listed. And if you hesitate long enough, your server — a kind but slightly harried throwback to a bygone era of Italian waiters — will gently suggest that you have some veal Marsala ($19).

I took the suggestion and was glad. Four veal cutlets, pounded paper thin, sauced with a dense, fragrant cloak composed of imported dry Marsala, portabella mushrooms, a little butter and olive oil, and all those yummy veal scrapings, was perfection. The veal basked in the other flavors, revealing itself as a classic. My dining companion's snapper marechiara ($25) offset a beautifully flaky white fillet with a modest red sauce — fresh tomatoes and garlic, white wine, and a trio of fresh chopped basil, oregano, and parsley — simple, perfectly balanced, delicious to the last bite. We hadn't left a scrap of food uneaten.

Romantico makes lots of rich and spectacular desserts: panettone bread pudding, Italian cheesecake, tiramisu, sometimes a warm apple tart or a chocolate polenta cake. But my companion was feeling homesick and had to have the cannoli ($7), another contribution from Sicily. They come two to an order, beautifully presented, with dustings of powdered sugar and cocoa — tubes of crumbly, buttery bliss wrapped around sweetened ricotta cheese flavored with bitter chocolate — they taste like the milk of human kindness. There's something satisfyingly infantile about licking the sweet cream from both ends. If there's a better cannoli to be found in greater Fort Lauderdale, I'll eat it.

Rosalina woke up and was carried around the tables for introductions. With those glossy dark curls and depthless eyes, she looked as classically Italian-American as the meal we'd just eaten. She'll no doubt cut her teeth on parmesan rinds and soothe away her sadnesses, as my companion used to, with "sauce sandwiches." This old world keeps turning, but the sauce remains the same. She's one lucky kid.


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