There are restaurants that define a place, that fix themselves in our hearts over time, and in Fort Lauderdale, Casa d'Angelo is one of them. Angelo and Denise Elia have run Casa d' for 11 years, and it's often the first restaurant locals think of for birthdays or anniversaries, to entertain an out-of-town guest, or to keep a Friday-night date with the spouse you've barely spoken to since Monday.
Local opinion has been echoed by the professionals: Walk through the door at Casa d'Angelo and glimmering rows of Florida Trend Golden Spoons are there to dazzle you, alongside Wine Spectator plaques, Gold Coast Magazine accolades, AAA diamonds, and the carefully framed reviews from swooning critics, many of whom have become regulars themselves.
Were the three best Italian restaurants in Fort Lauderdale given human form, the group photo would look something like this: Casa d' in the center as the distinguished uncle, dressed in a beautifully cut suit, graying hair combed back from the temples (that's a rough description of Elia, in fact). He'd be standing between cocky, smirking wonderboy Valentino's (spiky haircut, black dress shirt, pure sex appeal) and the thoroughly American Café Martorano (pricey athletic shoes, wife-beater T). These three restaurants constitute a triumphant triumvirate in Fort Lauderdale when it comes to Italian dining. Where you follow your nose on any given night depends on your disposition.
Casa d'Angelo, 1201 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale; call 954-564-1234. And 171 E. Palmetto Park Rd., Boca Raton; call 561-338-1703. Open Sunday through Thursday 5:30 till 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m.
As for me, I was a Casa d'Angelo virgin until a couple of weeks ago, partly because my New Times predecessors had already covered the place, and very little with menu or staff has changed over the years. The Casa d'Angelo family sprawls across the internet; neighborhood gadflies and out-of-town tourists returning year after year have happily assumed the role of very vocal experts. What could I add to the thickets of praise, the occasional niggling complaint, grown up around Casa d'Angelo like a forest around an enchanted castle?
My "first time" with Casa d' went about like you want these things to go. The experience was comfortable and pleasant, thankfully free of any major fumbles — you could say it was a night I'll remember fondly. Reading over the classic Tuscan menu, I felt I'd been placed gently in expert hands: Here were the gamberoni, giant prawns with cannellini beans, sage, and cherry tomatoes; the zucchini and squid dusted with semolina and lightly fried; the wood-roasted free-range chicken and the bistecca alla Fiorentina. I found rigatone topped with homemade sausage and winter mushrooms, escarole sautéed in garlic, a New York strip dressed in sautéed Vidalia onions and wild mushrooms. In other words, it all looked delicious, and there wasn't a single surprise in store.
Elia, who grew up in Florence, has been doing things exactly this way for more than a decade; in that time, he has opened sister restaurants in Boca Raton (where protégé Ricky Piper runs the kitchen) and in the Bahamas on Paradise Island. It takes a fair amount of discipline to keep this kind of focus year after year, to hitch your wagon to consistency rather than innovation. I suspect that Casa d's consistency — you could even say its rather prim reserve — has guaranteed its success.
The nightly specials are where Elia departs on occasional flights of fancy. They required our waiter, an Italian of indefinable age, to make an extended, heavily accented recitation tableside. Each time the poor man paused for breath, it soon became clear he was only gathering steam. He fired back with appetizers of zucchini flowers stuffed with crab meat and mascarpone ($16) or marinated baby artichokes with a tart green arugula salad and shaved Parmesan ($16); homemade cheese tortellini ($24); roasted salmon, pounded veal scaloppini, snapper Livornese, a special risotto, a whole wood-roasted bronzino ($34), double rib veal chop with mushrooms ($46). When he finished, he was gasping for breath. To thank him, we put down our menus and ordered three courses of specials.
You can sit indoors or out at Casa d'Angelo: Inside, a long, rather plain but pleasant room gets its visual interest from a couple of Roman columns and the action from an open kitchen. Parties book the private wine room, holding 5,000 bottles, at the far end. On weekends, it's crowded inside, vibrating with raised voices and hustling servers. Customers sometimes complain about being shunted onto the patio, but in weather like we've been having, it's really the better option. We sat at a patio table in the balmy evening and had gracious room for our elbows and our conversation.
We started with stuffed zucchini flowers and baby artichokes, along with a glass of Monte Zovo Valpolicella ($16), a dusky Amarone with masculine aromas of leather and tobacco, a little rough around the edges but totally charming. Elia hand-picks his wines by the glass to "exemplify the highest-quality wine from its region." They're dispensed from a Cruvinet cabinet that keeps the juice fresh. Casa d' has one of the better wine lists in Lauderdale — it runs to 40-plus pages of American and European bottles with generous sections devoted to Piedmont, Friuli Venezia, Tuscany, Umbria, Sicily, and Sardinia — and there are some real bargains from these last two.
The zucchini flowers were filled with creamy cheese and shredded crab; they'd been sprinkled with semolina and fried golden, served with a little dish of yellow tomato marinara and a chopped Italian salad of radicchio and arugula. Despite the care taken with these delicate flowers (they barely last a day after being picked, and they're a pain to stuff), the flavors were bland and the flowers a little greasy. We liked the baby artichokes on their long stems better, tenderized with marinade and fragrant with herbs, the rich mouthfuls spiked with salty pink sheets of prosciutto.
We split an order of homemade cheese tortellini tossed in tomato cream sauce; the little ricotta-filled pillows looked like clouds drifting in a rose tangerine sunset, and they were so delicate that they hardly required chewing. It was a beautifully restrained plate of pasta.
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A wood-roasted branzino, a European sea bass, still wearing its tail, needed nothing beyond light lemon butter sauce, a sprinkling of salty capers, and a few snips of parsley and fennel fronds. This fish was incomparable — flesh the color of new snow, a silky texture, the embodiment of luxury. I took most of it home and ate it cold the next day, and the taste hadn't deteriorated one iota. Our bone-in veal chop, cooked just pink in the center and cosseted in a carmelized layer of fat, was equally beautiful, set in a refined sauce infused with rosemary and made even more elegant with the warm perfumes of wild mushrooms, set against a multicolored pile of roasted eggplant, zucchini, and peppers.
These meats, vegetables, and pastas, so modest and graceful, are textbook Northern Italian cuisine. The ingredients speak for themselves; no fancy culinary trick is ever permitted to drown out the personal and individual voice of what comes from earth, sea, or pasture. Such simplicity can be deceptive — I ran across Elia's recipe somewhere for pasta al pomodoro e basilica (capellini with fresh tomato sauce and basil — it's $15 at the restaurant) and thought to myself, "Big deal! This is like the idiot's guide to dinner!" And truly, there's very little here, apart from the painstakingly stuffed zucchini flowers, that just about anybody couldn't manage at home given a little practice and the right tools.
We don't, of course, want to be at home, which is why we've come to Casa d'Angelo. But apart from gracious service and mostly excellent food, I found myself appreciating things here that I'd begun to take for granted. I'd thought Casa d' had no surprises for me, but the revelations came unbidden and unexpected. The precise flavor of an artichoke. The dewy, translucent hues of a perfect Mediterranean fillet. The open-air, medicinal pungency of summer rosemary.
How unlike these are from any other thing. And also how glorious.