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Pass the Bread, Casanova

Joe Rocco

Ladies, watch your backs. Three-quarters of the single adult American male population is suddenly out there perfecting the magic art of seduction. They've learned their foolproof pickup techniques courtesy of a Boy George clone and erstwhile magician who calls himself "Mystery." The guy, whose sartorial style runs to black fingernail polish, eyeliner, fluffy hats, and Eskimo glasses, runs boot camps around the country and has his own reality TV show, The Pick Up Artist, on VH1. He claims he can provide the tools (the "opener," the "gambit," the "neg," etc.) to turn any common toad into Lord Rochester.

You'd think a girl would at least be safe from this assault when she's sitting down to a restaurant meal, but apparently some waiters have come to recognize a fantastic opportunity when they see one: three women trapped in a booth surrounded by plates of appetizers, with no potential exit. What better opportunity to hone your sexy-time skills, right? Practice, practice, practice!

At least, I guess that's what was going on during our meal at Tulio's a couple of weeks ago; I have no other explanation for it. But if our waiter had been a competitor on The Pick Up Artist, it would have been game over in the first round. There were times during our two-hour dinner when I was left gaping, my forkful of noodles hanging in midair; surely we'd been made the butt of a practical joke? Were those hidden cameras behind the potted palms?

Our service at Tulio's, the 5-month-old "Italian fusion" restaurant recently moved to Royal Palm Place in Boca, was what you'd politely call eccentric. Oh hell, why be polite? Our waiter was a madman. He insulted us, bored us, and made us feel fat. He interrupted conversations, tendered and inexplicably withdrew offers of ground pepper, placed our bread out of reach while offering the opinion that he was doing us "a favor," misidentified berries, turned his back and drifted away as we were midsentence in ordering our entrées. He was too much with us and never there when we needed him, like a classic Peter Pan boyfriend. His jokes fell flat; his compliments showered down on us like so much acid rain.

And still, he didn't manage to ruin our meal.

Because the food at Tulio's is pretty good, overall. Owner Tulio Castilla Jr., a marketing man whose family originates in Colombia, taught himself to cook, acquired an Italian girlfriend, and decided to change careers and open himself up a restaurant. After a decade in Chicago, he relocated to Boca Raton, and now here he is, serving pasta alla amatriciana, cioppino, and osso buco in a setting he hopes will attract the young, the restless, and the on-the-make for one gigantic, parm-and-basil-scented bacchanal. Tulio's means to offer not just food but fun, with live music Wednesday through Saturday (half-price drinks for the gals on Wednesday), speed-dating for the over-45 set, and a late-night bar menu. A pretty outdoor bar attracts the afterwork crowd; a dark, tile-floored interior hung with tasteful paintings appeals to well-heeled retirees.

We lucked out with a different waiter on our second visit, a dignified, white-haired Italian who never set down a saucer in the wrong place. Our previous server was on the floor that night too; he appeared considerably subdued. Busboys cleared tables with alacrity (can somebody remind them not to stack plates?); the food runners strode from the kitchen hefting trays trailing clouds of steam. If I had to assign Tulio's a number, I'd say it gets everything exactly right about 60 percent of the time.

Still, for a place charging up to $50 for an entrée (the fillet of Dover sole, the filet mignon Rossini with black truffles), 60 percent may fall short of one's rightful expectations. Neither waiter offered us the new prix-fixe dinner touted in their P.R. (supposedly $24.95 for four courses), but the regular menu at Tulio's is fairly compact — a handful of appetizers and salads; a half-dozen pasta dishes (reasonably priced from $18 to $22); four veal dishes; four chicken, including chicken cacciatore; steaks; and seafood (on the fancier end, lobster francese). This minimalist menu offers enough variety, from fennel, watercress, and lobster salad to grilled veal chop, to please both the fat-free Boca birds and their portly, pink-jowled hubbies.

We loved our polenta cup appetizer ($9), buttery cornmeal cakes topped with artichokes, goat cheese, and lots and lots of fresh basil, set off in a bracing marinara sauce. That marinara conjured up absurd, pseudo-nostalgic longings — I had no Italian grandmamma, but my fantasy nona would have put together a sauce much like this one. We snagged back our out-of-reach bread basket and wiped up every drop.

An attractively vertical duo of grilled eggplant slices ($11) — wrapped around chopped prosciutto with goat cheese, walnuts, and olive tapenade; spiked with asparagus spears; set on a few leaves of arugula; and drizzled with balsamic — was eminently edible. Asparagus must be chef Tulio's favorite vegetable. Its fat green heads poke up everywhere — with the Dover sole, in the salads, as one of many ingredients in the duck parpardelle, strewn liberally through the appetizers. The chef has a heavy hand with artichokes too. So forget about tasting that gavi di gavi or sauvignon blanc: No wine is going to stand up to the cynarin in the chokes or the meth­ionine in the asparagus (yes, that's the sulfurous compound that makes your pee smell funny). A shame, since Tulio's wine list is small but attractive, with a particularly nice selection of boutique reds from California, Washington, and Oregon. He might want to lighten up on those palate-corrupting veggies. After just two meals at Tulio's, I'm content to wait until spring for my next spear of asparagus.

They'd been out of squid and crab the first night we dined (our waiter's lengthy disquisition on how and why the calamari was not fresh was enough to put us off seafood anyway). An expensive appetizer of grilled calamari stuffed with spiced crab ($18) on our second visit was hugely disappointing: hunks of charred rubber wrapped around the bland, chopped meat of the crustacean that had long since lost any memory of moisture. Only good manners prevented me from spitting it into my napkin.

Beautiful Dover sole ($49) restored our faith in fish. Our waiter madcap temporarily pulled himself together and filleted it tableside — transparently delicate meat drizzled with a sage beurre blanc; may this perfect, elegant food never go out of fashion. A bowl of rigatoni Tulio ($18) satisfied absolutely: spiced sausage, chopped walnuts, mushrooms, and roasted red peppers in tomato sauce generously flecked with Parmigiano-Reggiano. I was less enthusiastic about my duck alla Tulio ($22). The silky parpardelle and roasted slices of duck breast were fine, but I'd beg for a lighter, Buddhist hand with the gorgonzola, asparagus, and porcini cream — ingredients as aggressive as athletes on steroids.

And a big bowl of cioppino ($34), the Italian immigrant's San Francisco version of bouillabaisse, a hearty, healthy stew of varied spices and textures, tossed together lobster tail in its shell, clams, mussels, calamari rings, and handsome, muscular shrimp in a winey tomato broth. But salmon chunks — too assertive and fatty — detracted from the shellfish's clean flavors. The whole point of cioppino anyway is to celebrate pristine local seafood. A true-to-origin version in Florida might combine Key West shrimp and coastal farmed clams with red snapper and spiny lobster. I'd be thrilled to shell out the 34 bucks for a soup like that.

Skip dessert. Tulio's doesn't make its own strawberry cheesecake anyway, and the foamy texture and slightly metallic undertaste isn't worth the extra calories.

So go for the pasta, the appetizers, the bar food, and the party, because when the place is spilling over with 30-somethings in their tank tops and little black dresses, clutching fruit-infused cocktails and shimmying around to live music — and no doubt using their newly memorized pick-up lines — my guess is that the place is a blast. But for pricey upscale Italian, Tulio's has a lot of strong local competition. After five months at this location, chef Tulio is, I think, still struggling to secure his niche. He's no slouch with hearty comfort food and homemade Italian classics. But his servers need to go back to boot camp.


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