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Fiorentina in Lake Worth: It's the Small Plates That Shine at This Trendy Osteria

Josh Santangelo is Executive Chef and Owner at Fiorentina.  Here he shows off the popular Cotoletta alla Milanese. Click here to see more photos from Fiorentina.
Josh Santangelo is Executive Chef and Owner at Fiorentina. Here he shows off the popular Cotoletta alla Milanese. Click here to see more photos from Fiorentina.
Photo by Candace West

Just as Eskimos are said to have eleventy-billion words for snow, Italians have a lot of names for their restaurants. There are rosticcerias (which sell roasted meats and hot dishes), paninotecas (bread and sandwiches), and pizzerias. Traditionally, a ristorante has formal white tablecloths and a price tag to match; a trattoria is a more casual, family-owned eatery; and an osteria is the least presumptuous, with a bar-like atmosphere and a small selection of foods.

These Italian restaurant descriptions no longer have the hierarchal meaning they once did, but that hasn't stopped the owner of Fiorentina, a 7-month-old eatery on the main drag in downtown Lake Worth, from marketing his venture as an "osteria + enoteca" (wine bar) to add airs.

Fiorentina occupies the space formerly filled by Prime 707, a pricey steak and fish joint that closed in late 2009. Joshua Santangelo, former general manager of Prime 707, had moved on to a restaurant in New York, but when the Ohio native heard that Prime 707 had called it quits, he returned to open his own eatery in the same space, naming his venture after the Italian city from which his family hails.

When my boyfriend, Gil, and I arrived at Fiorentina — just minutes late for a 7 p.m. reservation — we were surprised to see that the place was at capacity. It was too chilly to sit on the patio, but inside the deep, narrow space, diners filled the cozy, U-shaped red booths along the right-hand wall's stone façade. Likewise, the dozen or so tall chairs at the bar on the left were taken. Ditto for tables in the far back that face the open kitchen. Dim lighting gave the space an intimate vibe, warmed by a backlit crimson Fiorentina sign glowing behind the bar and the soft gleam of lamps dangling over the tabletops. We looked on jealously, stuck at a rickety table for two wedged into a corner near the front.

It made for an interesting view of the crowd, however — a mix of young and old, men and women, dressed to the hilt or laid back in shorts and T-shirts. Fiorentina seemed like the new kid on the block, attempting to gain popularity by inviting all the cliques to the party — a tactic that seemed to be working.

After perusing a lengthy wine list (20-plus by the glass and more than 50 in all), we selected a mellow Merlot. We perused the menu, which boasted dishes in Italian, like bucatini all'amatriciana (thick spaghetti in a pancetta tomato sauce) and spiedini alla Romana (fried mozzarella sandwiches), with their scant English translations beneath. Being a Connecticut guinea who grew up eating in Italian joints all over New York and New Jersey, I could guess at most of it, but others might find it a tad pretentious.

Now if only the waiter would take our order. My boyfriend was still grumbling about the wait when Drew, dapperly dressed in head-to-toe black, remembered to stop by our table. All was forgiven when he cheerily answered all our questions about the menu, ticking off his favorite dishes.

Our first order was the fritto misto ($9), here a platter of calamari, fried shrimp, and artichoke hearts. And since bread service had passed us by, we hungrily watched the party next to us enjoy herb-dusted focaccia, seasoned olive oil, and plump olives. The appetizer proved worth the wait, juxtaposing the briny tang of artichoke against sweet, succulent fried shrimp and tender tentacles of calamari. Gil nabbed every bite of artichoke, delighted they replaced the zucchini more commonly found in this dish.

Next up: insalata caprese ($14), which can be only as good as its ingredients. This one included an obscenely decadent sac of Burratina Pugliese (mozzarella skin with an oozier mozzarella and cream mix inside), imported fresh from the Apulia province of Italy. The dish was perfectly executed, with sliced heirloom tomatoes and roasted peppers swimming in a dense balsamic reduction. Weeks later, I'm still fantasizing about this cheese.

Pasta and pizza are grouped as second choices on the menu; I tried the gnocchi bolognese ($13), a classic Tuscan staple. But when my plate arrived drowning in a thick layer of grated cheese, I was disappointed. Although the plump, light gnocchi pillows were cooked to perfection, what should have been an optional garnish made a stringy mess of the rich pancetta-, pork-, veal-, and beef-based sauce.

Seeing that I'd barely touched my dish, the waiter advised another go-around — a half-order of the spaghetti con aragosta ($8). I took his suggestion and ordered it instead of my usual favorite, the linguine vongole (pasta with clams). But this lobster, mint, chili, and cherry tomato recipe only frustrated us further, leaving me yearning for something heartier than the watery, mint-flavored pool at the bottom of the bowl, with just a few slivers of lobster meat bobbing at the edge.

After yet another lengthy wait, I salivated for our next round: white pizza ($10), a simple combination of olive oil, garlic, and hot peppers beneath a thin layer of mozzarella and pecorino cheeses. Its delicate, thin crust was grilled to perfection.

Until now, my boyfriend had only picked at the dishes, saving room for his main course, the cotoletta alla Milanese, the breaded veal chop entrée ($25). So he was shocked when the waiter finally produced a dismally thin, shamefully tough, schnitzel-style veal chop with just a garnish of mesclun salad.

My dentice livornese ($23) was a hit, however — a tender baked snapper served on a bed of tasty escarole and beans. I let Gil have at it, saving room for dessert — a hearty helping of house-made Italian-style ricotta cheesecake. Each lemon-infused bite, at once fluffy and dense, is cradled in a crust so rich it screams cardio for weeks.

Gil, still craving meat, ordered his version of "dessert," a scottadita ($13) appetizer — three lollypop lamb chops cooked to melt-in-your-mouth precision atop a viridian-hued mint reduction.

This offbeat ending pretty much summed up everything we felt about Fiorentina: Hits among the appetizers make up for the misses on the main courses. In all, Fiorentina has lovely décor and a hip bar scene. I'd suggest settling in with friends or family and sampling those moderately priced small plates that lend themselves to grazing. You'll end up spending less than we did and leave full. And try to snag one of those booths.

Spaghetti con aragosta includes just a bit of lobster, plus mint, chili, and cherry tomatoes.
Candace West

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