Oh, Say Can You Sea
I've been on a mission lately to find out if waterfront restaurants are really as bad as South Florida urban mythology has it. The good news: They aren't. I've finally given up trying to have anything like an edible meal at my local fish-camp-cum-sports-bar Intracoastal hangouts and ventured further afield, and I've found out how delicious and reasonably priced a meal on the water can be. That's particularly true of the cheerful beachfront restaurants dotting the shoreline from Deerfield Beach to Hollywood the crazy Key West-style mayhem of places like Aruba Beach Café, where you can brush the sand and sea lice out of your bikini and hop up to the bar for a tropical martini, or the comfortably elegant savoir faire of linen-and-tuxedo service at places like Windows at Ireland's, where customers slice into their steaks overlooking a nearly panoramic ocean view. Somewhere between these two extremes lie the places like Ristorante Luna Rosa in Deerfield, where you won't necessarily feel underdressed scarfing calamari in your tank top and jeans, but you'll be fine, too, sipping a Manhattan in your little black dress.
Luna Rosa Deerfield opened last summer with a menu and wine list similar to its sister restaurant, Caffe Luna Rosa, in Delray Beach. The restaurant filched Sous Chef Pasquale Lena from the older location and made him executive chef, and both restaurants are overseen by owner Fran Marincola and General Manager Jorge Ramos. Marincola opened the Delray place years ago as a gelateria (Italian ice cream shop) and gradually expanded into his two full-service restaurants what a success story! You'll probably spot Marincola and/or Ramos at Ristorante Luna Rosa during dinner service: They're the handsome dudes in expensive suits roaming the dining room to keep an eye on service and quality.
Luna Rosa, remodeled from the old Howard Johnson's restaurant and still attached to that hotel, has a pretty view of the beach and the pier from both inside and out, so it's worth going as it stays light longer for dinner or for breakfast or lunch. Things get crazy during season on that section of beach, and the restaurant doesn't take reservations for small parties, so you may have to cool your heels at the Pink Moon bar (although we got a table right away at 8:30 on a Saturday night because we were willing to sit inside). The trick is to valet your car at the entrance to the Howard Johnson's and get your ticket stamped in the restaurant (which brings the valet service down to a reasonable $3). It'll save you spinning around in the vortex of tourists and locals vainly trying to snag a parking spot: Believe it there aren't any.
The menu, as the moniker suggests, is all Italian all the time. Luna Rosa, we found, does some things extremely well and others not at all. Every review of the place during its first year has been glowing, and if I throw a little tepid water on Luna's pink bonfire, it's not because I want to douse the flame entirely. But there's room for improvement, and most of those improvements would be almost criminally easy to make because they require only simple attention to small details.
Let's take, for instance, the salads. We had two: the Luna Rosa salad and the insalata mista (each $6). The Luna Rosa is made with gigantic, uncut leaves of arugula and goat cheese, and the size of those leaves makes it almost impossible to eat gracefully. You have to saw away at them like you're cutting up dinner for a child or, failing that, stuff them into your mouth whole. Either option dims one's enjoyment. And it didn't help that the salad was almost entirely undressed. We found the same problem with our insalata mista simple mixed greens devoid of coating. Anyone who's ever been on a diet knows that a salad without oil is more punishment than pleasure. There's a reason the Italians long ago learned to add a bit of olive oil and lemon juice to their greens it makes them taste great!
I had bad luck too with an expensive red Super Tuscan ordered by the glass. It was clearly spoiled. I'm going to keep barking about wines by the glass until somebody hears the message: Customers are paying top dollar, often the price of an entire bottle, for a glass of wine. Servers really ought to bring the bottle to the table, present it, and pour a taste. I've seen this done only once or twice memorably, at Trina and my gratitude was boundless. Restaurateurs make huge profits on by-the-glass wines, and the least they can do is make sure (1) we're getting the wine we ordered, and (2) it wasn't uncorked three months ago.
But things turned around with a delicious plate of meatballs in pomodoro sauce (polpette di carne, $7). You think it's easy making a meatball? Not so, but apparently one of Luna Rosa's chef's mothers knew how, because this is a family recipe. The Sicilian at our table vouched for their authenticity: two tender, gravy-soaked mouthfuls of mixed beef and veal in a garlic and basil San Marzano tomato sauce. Flawless.
We had a bit of an entrée auction when our main plates came out, as the servers couldn't remember who got what. The ravioli pomodoro ($16) stuffed with ricotta and served in the same sauce as the meatballs, was a good, home-style dish without any special touches to make it particularly memorable. A special, the pesce delgiorno ($28), was an excellent, thick fillet of alabaster sea bass topped with melting sautéed eggplant, salty black olives, chopped tomatoes, capers, and mushrooms strong flavors and varied textures that complemented this robust and oily fish. A tasteless square of polenta came with it. I splurged on two South African lobster tails ($41), touted on the menu as being the finest of all lobster meat. These are worth every one of your hard-earned pennies if you're a lobster lover they're some of the most luxurious mouthfuls I've ever eaten. Beautifully presented, bursting out of their shells, they were sweet, clean-tasting, flawlessly pale, and tender without a hint of mushiness. While I was eating, I thought about how Americans once considered lobster fit only for the poor and smiled at the unintended justice of it. Still, why these elegant and expensive treats were served with tasteless brown potatoes and overcooked, sour asparagus, is a mystery only the kitchen can answer.
A chocolate soufflé ($9) for dessert was nothing of the sort. We know what a soufflé is, even if the management doesn't it's that miraculously airy custard, fussed over and cooked in a water bath, that comes puffed up and hot from the oven the one the French are famous for. This thing was some kind of (I'm guessing, pre-frozen) cake with a somewhat liquid center. The cake was dry, and the center was flavorless, and it wasn't worth half of the nine bucks they were charging for it. My glass of sambuca ($8.50) was a far better bargain.
Would I go back? You bet. I'd elbow my way in for a view of the pink sky at sunset, I'd have seconds of those meatballs and lobster tails (hold the sides!); I'd check out the fresh fish. I'd order my wine by the bottle (they have an excellent list of Italians) and drink my dessert. And I have no doubt I'd be a happy woman. In the meantime, I hope somebody's learning how to toss oil in a salad and boil a bunch of asparagus.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to South Florida dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.