I don't know how the Italians managed it. They've infiltrated the collective consciousness so thoroughly that even a WASPy Irish/English daughter of the American Revolution like me feels that her childhood must have included some old nonna cooking gnocchi in a sweaty Brooklyn kitchen. In fact, my old nana was more likely throwing back whiskey sours at the bar when I was a kid, passing me the booze-soaked cherries. Still, Italian cooking evokes in me an eerie sentimentality that has no root in reality. There ought to be a word for this feeling — nonstalgia, maybe? Remembrance of things pasta?
The problem's exacerbated by my Sicilian partner, who actually did have a grandmother who cooked meatballs and a grandpa who took her to the OTB parlor, where she played on the filthy floor with the losing tickets his cronies threw down. He'd give her sips of liquor to keep her pliant ("Don't tell your grandmother"). After eight years together, our personalities have merged to the point that I physically remember what it felt like to be carried home half-drunk and propped up in front of a plate of Sunday sauce. Living with an Italian also gives you a sort of walking, talking dousing rod — the girl starts to quiver whenever she senses "authentic" Italian food. It was this slight spousal quivering, along with the glad-handing and backslapping going on just inside the front door, that alerted me that Valentino's Cucina might be a place our appetites could settle into comfortably.
Forty-two-year-old Giovanni Rocchio took over from his parents, Tony and Carmella, who ran the original Valentino's for four decades in Plantation. When they retired, he moved Valentino's east and reopened three years ago on Federal Highway, south of Broward Boulevard, with a hipper, more adventurous and contemporary menu and a far-ranging wine list. From the time he was 7, Rocchio had been training hard in his parents' kitchen; he had done time as a sous chef and line cook in New York restaurants, including Terrance Brennan's Picholine and the trendy Fiamme; he'd traveled around Italy. When he got his own place set up — just 17 tables and an open kitchen with a wood-burning oven in a pleasant, subdued room whose main decorative element is the oversized wall mirrors — he started playing around with dishes like buccatini with chunks of lobster meat and a sea urchin roe emulsion; or John Dory paired with calamari, artichokes, and chick-pea purée. People started to talk. Foodie messageboards vibrated. Friends introduced friends.
Valentino's Cucina Italiana
Valentino's Cucina Italiana, 1145 S. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Open Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Call 954-523-5767.
Rocchio comes in daily to make his own pastas — ravioli, garganelli, buccatini, tortellini stuffed with squash — and he cooks with a small handful of staff during dinner rush. He loves it. "This isn't work for me," he told me when I called. "The only thing I'd rather be doing is working as a rock star."
He's put away the old guitar, but Rocchio maintains semi-rock stardom in the clientele he's attracting. Every seat in the house was occupied both times we ate there — sometimes by more than one person. The high rollers of Lauderdale seem to be smitten. I listened to one guy at the table behind us bragging how he always left "a $300 tip" after a Valentino's meal. One night, a couple of young dudes were having their photos snapped by their girlfriends, ladies who, with their backless dresses, glossy ponytails, and airbrushed gams, were probably the most perfect specimens of female pulchritude I've seen since my last trip to Rachael's. Boisterous Brooklyn accents ascended above each other like the screams of sirens in the New York night. Hidden behind a forest of dozens of open, partially consumed wine bottles, a portly giant and two male minions sat eating their shellfish. There was a pockmarked troll, somebody's uncle Nick, who'd had too many glasses of Barolo — he wobbled out the front door at intervals for cigar breaks and greeted every woman who entered with a bow and a flourish. Not only did everybody seem to know everybody but by the time we'd finished our second meal, everybody knew us.
I forgot to ask Rocchio where he found his waiters, but they're mostly gray-haired, stentorian males over 50. They have the stolidity of ex-bouncers, and their minds are agile enough to remember the excruciating details of the nightly specials. More agile than mine, I'm afraid. Those specials are recited with gusto above clinking wine glasses and shouted conversation; trying to memorize them, I felt like Sarah Palin cramming for a Katie Couric interview. I can tell you this, at least: There was whole bronzino; grouper ($36); turbot with lobster ($36); stuffed zucchini blossoms ($20); a special salad made with corn, mushrooms, and goat cheese ($18); a parsley salad ($20); and the buccatini with lobster meat, hot chilies, and a butterless sauce made with sea urchin roe. Some of these specials, like duck confit with garganelli ($30), are so popular that they've become fixtures. Others change with the seasons. The fish, from John Dory to turbot when they have it, is flown in from New York.
This menu is not something your nonna would have recognized, with its beet purées and warm goat brie (an appetizer, $14), a cheese that combines the pungency of cow's-milk brie with the tang of goat. Rocchio crusts the cheese with pistachios and pine nuts and serves it with green apples, mixed greens, and a warm pancetta vinaigrette. The menu's elaborate, the dishes are occasionally overwrought, and we did have a plate of veal tenderloin medallions come to the table quite cool — not once but twice. On the other hand, these hopped-up specials with all their fancy ingredients still evoke the smells and flavors of traditional Italian cooking, and that's part of what makes eating at Valentino's so interesting: the apprehension of novelty with the comfortable rub of the familiar.
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There were some amazing highlights. Valentino's offers the cure for boring salad. A parsley salad topped with two beautiful, sweet, grilled jumbo shrimp employed both the fresh green leaves and the slivered parsley root, shaved Parmesan and pine nuts. The presentation was gorgeous, and the play of textures — delicate leaves, muscular shellfish, crunchy root — was inspired. A warm corn salad tossed fresh kernels just shaved from the cob with arugula, gently sautéed chanterelle mushrooms, chunks of aged goat cheese, and candied walnuts for another beautiful interplay of color and texture. All the appetizers we tried, in fact, were brilliant: four zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta, burrata, and basil and fried in tempura batter, served with cubes of baked squash; and ravioli sprinkled with poppy seeds and stuffed with the aromatic tang of fonduta: Gorgonzola, fontina, taleggio, and sweet diced pear — a smear of red beet reduction on the side.
Of our entrées, some were outstanding, others expensive flops. The veal medallions ($40) came out overcooked on the first try, and when we sent them back for a revision, the whole plate was returned devoid of heat, with only a paltry few of the gnocchi that were advertised with the special: meat, whipped potatoes, baby carrots, green beans. My turbot with lobster meat was dry and, in spite of an unctuous Marcona almond sauce, hadn't much flavor, and the medley of roasted beets, spinach, and figs made for a messy flavor profile. But we loved our roasted diver scallops paired with crab meat and corn on a bed of mashed potatoes ($36); and a big, sweet grouper fillet that came with rock shrimp and a sauce made from lobster coral served over cauliflower purée. Still, the entrées that I came away thinking I couldn't live without were the homemade garganelli — a delicate, small, ribbed tube — topped with luscious duck breast that had been cured with espresso, spices, and duck fat; porcini mushrooms; and oven-dried tomatoes, the flavors in this dish impossibly rich and condensed. As for the rollatini ($25): Rocchio takes the classic idea of braciole and stuffs a skirt steak with escarole and anchovies, layers in pine nuts, pecorino cheese, and parsley, drizzles it with salsa verde, and serves the whole over braised white beans with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes. The dish draws on classic flavors and textures but in the combination arrives at something unexpected. It's like hopping a high-tech bullet train for the ride to your old hometown.
The 200-plus wine list at Valentino's is beautiful, a selection ranging from Italian Barolos and Brunellos to California pinots, but none of them come cheap. You can buy half bottles like a good Truchard pinot, and one of the most moderately priced Italian bottles was a complicated and fruity Pio Cesare Barolo at $110, but they'd sold out of the latter by our second visit. From there, just about the only way to go was up.
Two of our three desserts were real winners: I found a chocolate hazelnut torte too dry, dense, and hard to cut, but a crusty, creamy crème brûlée served in an edible waffle cookie basket topped with fresh berries, and a sliced pear "tart" in puff pastry baked in the wood oven couldn't be bettered. All the desserts were $10. And like what preceded them, they tasted like the Italy of some ideal future, a place where there's no need for yearning. The elegiac past has been incorporated and encapsulated in a perfectly modern present.