Dining Like Divas
What would Madonna do? It's 9 p.m., and the crowd has thinned out since we got here. We're at a briskly starched table at Trina, the year-old restaurant in the Atlantic Hotel. There's a bowl of chilled almond soup in front of me. It's a dish I'll never forget.
But I have to stop mid-spoonful to wonder. Would Madonna feel like this? Is the material girl so accustomed to a daily diet of supernaturally sensual soups that she'd wolf it down, barking instructions to her mascara handler between slurps? Just maybe she'd linger over it like I'm doing, feeling every bite spread bliss through her system. This is a soup that could transform you, if you let it. Eat it and you're an instant diva.
Trina's executive chef, Don Pintabona, has cooked for Madonna. He's also cooked for Liza Minelli, Linda McCartney, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Jordan, Jerry Seinfeld, Diana Ross, and Bruce Springsteen. Now, by some absurd stroke of good fortune, he's cooking for me.
Pintabona and his partner at Trina, beveragemeister Nick Mautone, are both big-shot New York restaurateurs. Pintabona came to the subtropics after a decade-long stint at Robert De Niro's Tribeca Grill, where he razzle-dazzled with inventions like "Bill's Great Wall of Tuna" (named for Bill Murray, who couldn't get enough of it). During his years at Gramercy Tavern, Mautone was one of the players behind the cocktail revolution that hit New York like a maraschino-cherry-flavored tsunami. If every Fendi-clad Barbie in Manhattan was quaffing clove-infused martinis and picking at prosciutto-wrapped figs with truffle cheese, these guys were at least partly to blame. They're the real deal. That they've landed in Fort Lauderdale and set up shop with a view of the beach is serious cause for celebration.
Glamorous, yes. But I'd turned on my pretension meter before I got here, and I've picked up hardly a blip. My gaydar is malfunctioning too. I can't tell if the guys at the next table are a couple or if they're just out on a "man date." That tells you something about Trina. You can't typecast the crowd here. And the hosts and servers all pretend -- with unshakeable blitheness -- not to notice that your shoes are designer Target and your roots could use a touch-up. They meet your needs with such pointed attention that you start to feel that you too could be on a first-name basis with Bobby De Niro.
The Atlantic Hotel is a splendiferous setting for Trina, which opened last June. The long outdoor patio faces the ocean, wafting cool salt breezes: exactly right for a menu loosely based on Pintabona's Sicilian heritage. The owner and his chef de cuisine, Mike Coldrick, take the foods of Sicily and compose variations, drawing on influences that range from memories of Pintabona's childhood kitchen, where his mother and grandmother stuffed artichokes and pounded out braciola, to his formal apprenticeships with French superchefs Daniel Boulud and Georges Blanc, to remote travels in Burma, where he learned to cook iguana. There's no iguana on the menu at Trina, but if there were, you can bet Pintabona would make it taste damned good.
The globetrotting superchef says he'd been kicking around the idea for Trina for a while, but he'd planned to open it in New York. When Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which runs the Atlantic, approached him a couple of years ago about doing an upscale restaurant, Pintabona jumped on it. "I thought [Trina] was the perfect concept for this place," he says.
It is. South Florida and Sicily share more than just a magnetic attraction for mafiosi. Both are surrounded by water. Both have been historically subject to invasions -- from Spaniards to snowbirds. Both are places where wildly different cultures clash, converge, or make peace with one another -- Cuban Republican and liberal New York Jew, Norman and Phoenician.
"Sicily is the epicenter for Mediterranean influences," Pintabona told me when I called him at home in New York, where he spends about half his time now. "As you travel through Sicily, you see that the food, architecture, music, and customs have been influenced by North Africa, Arabia, Central Europe, France, the Romans, the Greeks. That's what's always intrigued me about the island." This polyglot heritage is the backbone of Trina's menu, and the three seas that surround Sicily (the Ionian, the Tyrrhenian, and the Sicilian) keep the focus on seafood.
Even if you just drop by the bar for a quick bite, you're going to face tough choices. Scallops grilled on lavender skewers and served with rock shrimp and white beans ($10)? Chickpea fried calamari dipped in cracked pepper aioli ($11)? Or marinated, grilled octopus with potatoes, sherry vinegar, and oregano ($10)? We had the octopus, lightly charred, tender, running up and down the flavor and texture scales like a virtuoso -- bitter greeniness of oregano, sweet flesh of the cephalopod, tang of vinegar, softness of potato, crunch of croutons. It was divine.
But I left the bulk of this appetizer to my dinner partner, who'd set up barricades with the bread basket to protect her meal from incursions. I was still "experiencing" my soup. It was a special, and since Pintabona regularly revamps the menu, I can't promise you'll get to try it. It's a vichyssoise finished with almond milk, scattered with slivered Spanish Marcona almonds and halved red grapes, and decorated with a long, sweet, undulating ribbon of almond cracker. It might be the best soup I've ever eaten. I'm sprung from the loins of a father who has managed to re-create every cold soup ever served on the QE2, so this is rather high praise. I was also raised on vichyssoise; at age 8, my reward for sitting through, say, a four-hour, French-subtitled documentary about the Holocaust with my mother was a trip to Bookbinder's in Philadelphia -- their iced potato soup could somehow soothe the trauma of a full afternoon of Night and Fog. I admit I'd been emotionally primed to love the bowl in front of me. Even so...
The bread barricade continued to shrink as my friend used it to sop up the last drops of herb-infused olive oil in her dish. We'd polished off most of this amuse bouche anyway -- spiced olives; extra virgin olive oil; a hummus exuding a faint, unidentifiable sweetness; fennel-raisin bread; focaccia with rosemary; and long crunchy pepper sticks. And I was feeling fine after a Trinatini, the house's signature cocktail (like most drinks on the extensive list, it's mixed with homemade fruit and herbal infusions), a $12 cocktail that reveals itself like a burlesque dancer, saving its sexy pool of lavender-infused syrup for last. We asked our waiter to recommend a glass of wine to go with the ricotta cavatelli pasta ($12 appetizer, $24 entrée). He did -- bringing the bottle to the table and offering a taste before I committed. Nice!
Homemade ricotta cavatelli is one of Pintabona's standards. It appears in his wonderful biographical cookbook, The Shared Table, and at Trina, you might find it served with braised oxtails and horseradish crème fraiche or tossed with wild mushrooms, duck meat, and almond cream sauce, as we did, or presented in some other fanciful elaboration. Mushrooms and duck are always an inspired, earthy pairing; the almond cream pulled the dish off the ground and sent it up into the air. The cavatelli was delicious too, with a pillowy/chewy texture almost like gnocchi. It's a rich dish for an appetizer; I recommend you share if you want to be able to move beyond it.
A plate of pan-roasted diver scallops and sweetbreads ($24) was marginally less thrilling than the appetizers. Sweetbreads are usually the veal's thymus gland, which runs from the throat to the heart; they're tender and white, with a delicate and pleasant, organ-meaty flavor. These were stacked over the big scallops in a tier, the whole held together with a length of bacon. The bacon infused everything with a nice smoky flavor, but the scallops were gritty and the sweetbreads just slightly dry. I doubt if I'd order this dish again. My friend's herb tagliatelle with lobster shellfish broth ($28) came swimming with shrimp, clams, and mussels, a dab of jumbo lump crab meat, and a soothing, buttery broth full of seafaring flavors. She loved it.
I've been back since then for lunch, when I lingered for a ridiculously long time over a thin and crunchy, brick-oven flatbread topped with sweet, briny rock shrimp, chorizo, slivers of bitter-toasted garlic, and rapini ($14) and a cold glass of chardonnay. This simple lunch on the beach isn't easily topped.
Because it's set in a hotel, Trina is open for breakfast from the crack of dawn, when it serves banana-stuffed French toast and a lineup of paninis; it remains open through lunch for salads, sandwiches, flatbreads, and grilled fish, and parties until late in the evening, when the bar crowd finally moves on. As an almost 'round-the-clock gourmet restaurant, it's unique to our neck of the woods.
As for Mautone's wine and beer lists: He's gone to some trouble to buy hard-to-find boutique wines that pair with the dishes on Pintabona's menu, and the beer list is a gas. You could start a serious brew habit at Trina, beginning with the Dogfish Head stout (it's made with roasted chicory, organic Mexican coffee, St. John's wort, and licorice root).
A pit stop for dessert and coffee on the patio (almond milk panna cotta, chocolate cherry tart, a selection of artisanal Mediterranean cheeses, priced from $8 to $15) would also set you up nicely for a late night.
Trina is named for the triangular, three-legged Medusa on the Sicilian flag. If I remember correctly, Medusa was punished by Athena for daring to compare herself to a goddess. I'll just sit quietly with my soup then, letting go of any fanciful comparisons with the Madonna-goddess, grateful that the two of us have, if nothing else, a chef in common. I don't want to tempt fate. We need to hold on to this place.
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