Italy once had strict classifications for restaurants. Ristorante, the most formal of these, was used for fine-dining establishments. Less formal, the trattoria included moderately priced local food and wine. An osteria was the least formal. Originally, osterie were guesthouses with food and drink. Over the years, the term has taken on some different meanings. These days, it can mean taverns that serve only drinks or a small restaurant serving wine and simple foods.
No matter how you define osteria, Fort Lauderdale's Osteria Acqua & Farina is not a traditional member of its category. It is not an inn, but the food is relatively simple. The small interior is packed with patrons chatting away at white-clothed tables covered with a thin layer of white paper for protection — from red sauce and red wine. A comfortable and inviting space, it looks like a place one would visit for a family dinner: contemporary, with a warm finish. At first glance, the space does not seem confined. One wall is deceptively decorated with sleek, black-framed mirrors, reflecting the happenings in the open kitchen, which gives the small space an open feel.
At 7:30 on a recent Saturday night, the place on Federal Highway near Davie Boulevard was packed. Occupying the same storefront that was once Valentino's Cucina Italiana, Osteria is owned by Giovanni Rocchio, who has created a less expensive option for his long-standing following. He opened in June of this year, aiming to give Fort Lauderdale residents a place for good Italian pizza — you actually can overhear Italian coming out of the kitchen — and great pastas. Valentino's was owned by Giovanni's parents in Plantation for 40 years. Later, Giovanni relocated the restaurant to east Fort Lauderdale. Now, he's opened a larger space just down the street.
Service is questionable. Our server passed by our table with a couple of interesting dishes en route to the table behind us. "That looks amazing," I asked the server. "What is it?" Unimpressed, she walked away without answering.
But the place is small: 14 tables that seat up to 56 guests, and normal rules of interaction tend to go out the window in such a small place. The man who received the dish tilted up his plate to give us a better view. "Chicken scarpariello," he replied. "It's chicken and sausage."
We decided we would each pick a dish and pass everything around, family style. Not necessarily the restaurant's intentions, but hey — it's casual Italian. We surveyed the menu: salads and appetizers; pastas; entrées, ranging from chicken and veal to seafood; red pizza; white pizza; calzones; foccacia. Straightforward, simple Italian cuisine.
Soon we settled on the porcini pizza ($15), topped with taleggio cheese, porcini mushrooms, truffle oil, and garlic. The smell was pungent, but the flavor was out of this world. This was by far the favorite dish. Taleggio is a washed-rind cheese. And like many other cheeses aged in this manner, it has an extremely strong smell but a beautiful, mild flavor that melts into velvety perfection.
The creamy and sweet taleggio created the perfect balance to the meaty, earthy porcinis and nutty essence of truffles, all on top of a crispy thin crust. It was like eating a piece of forest. As with a large majority of his products, Rocchio imports his white truffle oil from Italy. We all agreed: We would order this pizza again.
After the intense flavors and aromas of the taleggio and truffle, the fig and prosciutto was next. Baked in the prominent wood-burning oven without cheese, the crust was perfect: thin and crisp, browned bubbles swelling from the edges. With dollops of ricotta cheese, thinly sliced prosciutto, and fresh figs, it was an interesting example of contrast: warm crust, cold toppings; sweet, salty; acidic and, well, meaty. We could overhear surrounding tables raving about it.
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We also tried the eggplant appetizer, which was served in a ramekin with fresh mozzarella and a delicious bittersweet San Marzano tomato sauce that included fresh garlic. A regular special, this is a dish that definitely deserves a repeat.
All of the other dishes melded into a haze. The lamb-chop special, ordered medium, came out medium rare, which I actually preferred. The accompanying roasted potatoes were nicely crisped on the outside, but the cold spinach seemed more of an afterthought than an integral component. The clams oreganata were adequate, nicely browned breading packed atop whole fresh clams, but they lacked the depth of flavor found in the Northeast.
We closed our dinner with a dessert that stole the show: the $12 nutellino. At our server's prompt, we added banana — she had actually slightly warmed up to us by then. Never did I think a dessert calzone could taste so good. The airy crust was lightly wrapped around warm, velvety nutella and sweet banana, then topped with tangy, fresh whipped cream. It was the perfect comfort dessert.
The dessert summed up our experience: warm and comforting. Whether the place adheres to the proper definition of an osteria or not, the food and the space itself feel like home.