Hot or Not?

Joe Rocco

"Handsome is as handsome does."

Somebody's wise old grandmother said that. Not my grandma; she was too busy pounding back snifters of cognac and channel-surfing for the latest Ronco electric food dehydrator — and anyway, she was such a sucker for a pretty face. Sometimes, it takes a good many years to fully absorb the wisdom of old wives. If your Johnny Depp lookalike passes bad checks all over town and gets busy with the local floozie, you'd best rethink those marriage plans.

Dining out at a new restaurant is kind of like a blind date, isn't it? Sure, you can Google ahead of time. Maybe a friend has confided, "I've found the perfect place for you." But you're still hooking up with a stranger. You've gotta sit down with it for a couple of hours and give it your undivided. You need to plumb its dreams. You hope your new restaurant looks good (but looks aren't everything). You hope it has a pure heart. Depending on how the evening goes, it might be love. Or not.


Zucca Pasta 'n Grill

401 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale

Lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. till 2:30 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 954-334-2233.

The new Zucca Pasta 'n Grill on Las Olas is the Colin Farrell of the Broward County dining scene. It's unbelievably hot. Step through the doors into this movie-star-gorgeous space and be prepared to swoon, lucky girl — the place is hard where it needs to be (that distressed concrete, those exposed air ducts!) and soft in all the right spots (the mooshy oversized chairs in the waiting area). Its two open stories are texturally fascinating, exuding charms of glass and steel; otherworldly, lime-colored lighting emanates from the bar. A second floor floats above this gargantuan space — above the two pasta stations and the open kitchen. Somebody has thrown millions into this joint. In the looks department, Zucca's a perfect 10.

Even better, it's packed with beautiful people. They are young and casually fashionable. They are black and white. Whole handsome families are tucked in at long tables — from the round-eyed 9-year-old to the dandy old Granddad. A raucous birthday party ("Speech! Speech!") is going on upstairs.

There were many lovely souls, of all ages, colors, shapes, and sartorial styles the Saturday night we showed up, lining the bar and filling dozens of tables — certainly the richest concentration of female pulchritude since the Judgment of Paris. Zucca has been open only three months, but news has traveled — here's where it's at, baby, and you can't get a midevening reservation on a weekend. We were offered a table at 6:30 or 9 p.m. We chose the 9, arrived at 9:15, were seated at 9:30, and parties continued to arrive right until the kitchen closed at 11.

Thank Bruno Silva for Zucca. He's the guy who opened the fancy Brazilian rodizio, Chima, a few years ago, and success has made him bold. But what Silva has done here is as unique in its way as Chima: Zucca looks like the kind of place to break your wallet, but for a Las Olas location with this sort of designer chic, it's a ridiculous bargain. When was the last time you saw a $9 entrée on any menu? That's what you pay for Zucca's pumpkin ravioli. Shell out $9.90 for a pass at the pasta bar. A splurge on tilapia stuffed with cream cheese and arugula will set you back $16.90. A mere $13.90 will snag you "banana-stuffed chicken breast."

Hold up — Did I just say banana-stuffed chicken breast? Here's where we come to the sticking place: that invisible line that separates people who think banana-stuffed chicken breast sounds delish from those who do not. Those two groups of diners are as different from each other as, well, as bananas are from chicken.

We didn't order the banana-stuffed chicken, although I did try it a couple of days later at lunch. The recipe confounded my expectations, thanks to a light hand with the bananas, a serviceable risotto with halved, roasted cherry tomatoes and bits of arugula, and a well-seasoned bird breast. Who knew?

Sadly, the rest of the menu at Zucca is a minefield — stumble across it at your peril. There are innocuous-sounding dishes like "goat cheese ravioli with cheese sauce" ($12). And more elaborate offerings: An appetizer of Zucca carpaccio with shrimp and truffle oil ($6.90) offers "chilled thin sliced squash, fillo wrapped fried shrimp, shredded pecorino and balsamic." Hmm. Maybe? The Cipolla Ripiena di Gamberi ($6.90), roasted onion stuffed with lobster and shrimp "served with its bisque," sounded kind of interesting too. We ordered those, along with the goat cheese ravioli, and filet parmigiana ($19.90), a steak that promised to be "lightly battered" and served with fettuccini in tomato sauce.

I nursed an apple martini and perused the open pasta bar while we waited. The pasta bar is the big news at Zucca, apparently a madhouse at lunch and doing hopping business at night. You tell the chef what you want, choosing your noodle, your veggies, and your sauces, and he whips it up on the spot. Instant gratification. I don't need to elaborate how I feel about this concept, do I? The pasta drying in its stainless-steel vats. The potential for weird combinations — angel hair with asparagus and tomato sauce; rigatoni with peas; calamari and ziti with — gasp! — parmesan cheese. No one who knows her noodles would have anything to do with such an idea, not even for $9.90 (or $12.90 with seafood).

Somebody turned down the lights at 9:30, but even so, what a spectacle our appetizers made. A plate of thinly shaved zucchini — I'm down with that — and two gargantuan shrimp in fillo comprised the Zucca carpaccio. The bristling shrimp looked like weapons of torture and tasted like greasy, fried Shredded Wheat. There was no way anybody could reasonably argue that they complemented, went with, set off, or even interestingly contrasted with the zucchini, blanketed as it was in enough pecorino to feed an extended family of vermin. A heavy hand with the cheese, it turned out, was going to be our main theme of the evening. I couldn't detect the faintest note of anything truffle-like.

My date's onion ($6.90) was indeed stuffed with tiny shrimp and bits of lobster. The best thing you could say about it was that it was cooked, though not "roasted," and the seafood was edible. No trace of lobster or shrimp flavor in the "bisque," though.

The second theme of the evening, like a minor chord, revealed itself in our entrées. Zucca likes to throw around words like truffle, filet, bisque, and reduction, but the facts do not bear them out. Under its thick, rubbery sheet of parmesan, our "filet" was no tenderloin. I don't know what it was, maybe an eye round? It was thin, dry, chewy, and gigantic, filling almost the entire plate. It tasted exactly like the steak you'd order late at night in any diner, only no self-respecting diner would ever dump that much cheese on top of a piece of beef. I sliced open one of my great, round ravioli to reveal a gray center — potatoes flavored with goat cheese. But you wouldn't notice the gray unless you were really looking, because the ravioli had drowned in gloppy orange cheese sauce that wouldn't have won a blind taste test against Kraft's boxed.

Hideous disappointment! Our blind date, studly Colin Farrell body-double, had put his elbows on the table and launched into a sentimental journey on the incomparable qualities of his ex, pausing only to make obscene kissy noises at any passing female. We looked around, and you could say the scales fell from our eyes. This chic space no longer looked so chic (aren't flat screens playing silent movies so... passé? And what about that hostess who'd dissed us when we arrived?). Our prince charming, so suave and metrosexual, had turned out to be the equivalent of a tarted-up Olive Garden. Highly recommended! As long as you don't eat anything.

Handsome is as handsome does. In despair, we ordered dessert. Hot apple pie straight out of a frozen box, with bitter, sharp-tasting cinnamon ice cream ($5.90). The rooms were still hopping, the bar full up as we made our exit down a long row of blonds — honey and amber and white gold — their perfect legs crossed under tiny skirts. We'd relinquished all our illusions but one: Those girls still looked damned sweet.

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