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Mangiare Bene

Joe Rocco

When I was a kid, my grandmother and grandfather fought their most vicious battles over scotch lowballs and plates of cannelloni at a Palm Beach Italian place called Maurice's. He was an aging artist, she a lifelong floozy and tippler 25 years his junior, and their shrill skirmishes were part of the warp and woof of the neighborhood fabric till the day his heart gave out late one afternoon as he was shuffling home. This was Palm Beach circa 1975; Maurice's was on the corner of Seminole Avenue. I can't remember if the place actually had red- and white-checked tablecloths, but I do know that an empty Chianti bottle with a candle stuck in it sat on every table, striated with ribbons of confetti-colored wax. More straw-wrapped bottles hung from the ceiling along with green and purple lamps shaped like bunches of grapes, and bad murals of the Ponte Vecchio and the Coliseum loomed on every wall. The place was as dark as a catacomb. It smelled of spilled red wine and White Shoulders perfume.

An ideal spot to wage marital war. The waitresses, being middle-aged, were discrete; they'd seen it all and knew exactly how much scotch you could swallow before they'd have to summon a dishwasher from the kitchen to guide you home. As for the menu, it was limited to mushy pasta drenched in tomato sauce, garlic rolls, fettuccini Alfredo, and chicken cacciatore. Lasagna was a hot seller. Wine was cheap and plentiful.

I don't recall all this with a whole lot of nostalgia. When you said Italian food in those days, you really knew what you were getting, and it wasn't any good. Then something happened in the early '80s. Mario Battali was still working as a pizza guy at Stuff Yer Face in New Brunswick, a long way from Babbo, but we were all starting to get hip to the idiosyncrasies of European food. In the quarter century since, gourmet Italian has become the dinner option of choice for most Americans. Well over half of the new restaurants that opened in Broward/Palm Beach in the last couple of years owe their menus and their earning potential to some region of the old boot.

How many more Italian restaurants can we take before we've jumped the shark on antipasti? It's not a question of simply going out to eat Italian anymore. Now you have to decide whether you want Tuscan, Sicilian, or Roman — the shellfish of Abruzzi, the truffles of Piedmont. You need to hone your focus on kitchens where red sauce bubbles on a back burner all day versus the ones searing veal chops on a wood-fired grill. If you're hungry for pasta, is it handmade lobster ravioli you're craving or pumpkin-stuffed tortellini or squid-ink tagliolini or pappardelle with wild boar sauce?

What follows is a list of my favorites, the Italian restaurants I go back to as often as I can afford and yearn for when I can't. They may be related by blood, but otherwise, their only resemblance is that faint, lilting accent and occasionally, perhaps, the distant strains of "'O Sole Mio."

Saporissimo in Boca Raton (366 E. Palmetto Park Rd; 561-750-2333), run by a charming Tuscan couple, is set in a shabby-chic converted cottage that manages to be both slightly down-at-the-heel and highly romantic. Service (courtesy of thickly accented Signor Monegatti) is personal and picturesque. The Monegattis' menu leans toward vaguely medieval specialties of the region, particularly wild game. Boar sauce, thick elk chops, rabbit cooked in casserole, quail, venison osso buco, wild duck, and pheasant are house specialties; all the pastas — porcini-stuffed ravioli, for instance — are homemade. They import a scrumptious, creamy burrata cheese from Italy. Their veal piccata, festooned with truffles and foie gras, is the best I have ever tasted. This one's expensive, a terrific choice for anniversaries and birthdays.

New to the scene: Il Cioppino in Lantana (210 E. Ocean Ave.; 561-588-1420) is also family-run and offers a gorgeous outdoor patio and a glowing, warm interior. After pacing outside with our cell phones, we were warned by the maitre d', who cocked one jovial eyebrow, that we needed to put the phones away and give our stomachs "a rest" before dinner. Named for the famous fish stew, Cioppino specializes in seafood — particularly an ethereal white sea bream called orata, flown in from Italy a couple of times a week, grilled whole until its skin is brown and crisp, and filleted tableside. They do a lovely tuna carpaccio with giant capers and tiny, spicy clams and mussels steamed in wine with red pepper. I could eat Cioppino's homemade squid ink taglioline, served with grilled shrimp and steamed clams, every day for the rest of my life. It's out-of-this-world and unlike any other dish in South Florida. Expensive.

Ruggero's Bistro in Fort Lauderdale (2671 E. Oakland Park Blvd.; 954-563-4683) appears to be a semi-luxe and genial hangout for a clientele mostly down from Long Island and mostly friends of the owners (one is a Harley dealer, another a retired boxer). This is Sinatra territory: a veal entrée with spinach and prosciutto is named in honor of "The Voice." A huge appetizer bowl of chicken livers in "Albanese" sauce with hot peppers over grilled bread rubbed with Marsala will forever change the way you think of chicken livers; "Mama's everyday sauce," passed down from a family recipe and made with fiery sausage, braised pork, and meatballs over rigatoni, is calculated to suit a big man's appetite. Stiff martinis and live piano music, moderate prices.

Like Ruggero's, Frankie's Pier 5 in Hallandale Beach (124 S. Federal Hwy.; 954-454-2410) serves a discerning clientele of Jersey Italians and visitors from Brindisi who know what a baked clam is supposed to taste like and who all have mamas competing for the title of Best Sunday Gravy. The baked clams (oreganata or casino) certainly rock, and so does all their pasta, but my favorite dish is a pork chop scarpiello that tosses black olives, mushrooms, onions, and pepperoncini with spicy Italian sausage and drapes it all over and around a thick, seared chop. For dessert, the crème brûlée leaves competitors floundering in caramelized sugar. An angel-voiced Adonis plays live piano. Moderate to expensive.

Another couple, the Tascas, owns Capri Blu, one of the oldest Italian restaurants in Palm Beach County, recently moved to the island of Palm Beach (where Deco used to be: 251 Sunrise Ave.; 561-832-4300). I recommend with great enthusiasm their tagliolini limoncello — homemade thin fettuccini tossed with butter, cream, and limoncello liqueur — and also their homemade potato gnocchi alla Sorrentina, decadent as eating heavenly clouds draped in waves of mozzarella and fresh tomato sauce. Both dishes are deliciously complemented by live opera music presented on Monday nights and are best followed by a luscious and very individual tiramisu, made with kahlua. The chef and the splendid maitre d' grew up and earned their chops in the Roman kitchens of Alfredo di Lelio (of fettuccini fame).

New York chef and restaurateur Don Pintabona opened Trina (601 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-567-8070) in the Atlantic Hotel overlooking the ocean a couple of years ago, specializing in the cross-cultural foodways of Sicily, which incorporate many influences, notably from Spain, North Africa, and Greece. Pintabona's menu, which leans toward the sea, changes seasonally, but the brick oven flatbreads — rectangular thin-crust pizzas topped with anything from eggs and cheese for breakfast to prosciutto or rock shrimp for lunch or dinner — are available around the clock and are worth every mouthful. Soups are always superb — a velouté of oysters with black truffle crème fraiche or a cold marcona almond vichyssoise. Fire-roasted Chilean sea bass is served with white beans and garlic spinach in a tomato-basil broth; grouper is cooked and served in a Moroccan tagine with almond couscous and whitewater clams. Cocktails here are glitzy delights: I love the Trinatini made with pomegranate molasses and lavender syrup. Oceanfront, sophisticated, and expensive.

Josef's (9763 W. Broward Blvd., 954-473-0000), a funky/elegant Plantation restaurant specializing in the Northern Italian fare of the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region, is run by an Austrian chef and his American wife. This region of Italy was dominated by the Austrian Hapsburgs for years, and its cuisine incorporates Greek and Turkish elements too. Shrimp casserole is laced with grappa and Edam; homemade spaetzle is tossed with speck ham, sage, and caramelized onions. A generous pounded and butterflied veal chop coated with bread crumbs, egg, and parmesan and served with a simple, perfectly dressed green salad is quite simply one of the best veal dishes I have ever tasted. This is certainly one of the finest restaurants in Broward County. Romantic and expensive.

A few more names that should be on everybody's shortlist: Rino's Tuscan Grill on Las Olas serves a terrific pumpkin- and amaretto-filled tortelli and a divine tagliatelle with a very light tomato- and rosemary-infused rabbit sauce; the wood-burning oven also turns out perfectly grilled cuts of pork and veal chops. And three excellent cafés: Sapori in West Palm (upscale, elegant: I recommend the osso buco and the roast chicken); Martorano (delicious family style, swamped with celebrities, necessitating a long wait for a table) on Oakland Park Boulevard near the beach; and Vico on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale (the décor is exquisite).


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