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The World According to Vico

Joe Rocco

You can have too much of a good thing.

But not of the agnolotti rosa, a dish you could probably savor indefinitely: those silky, silver-dollar-sized rounds of homemade ravioli, scalloped edges folded around a dab of spinach and ricotta, tossed in a fresh tomato cream sauce.

Marco Vico was telling me about the second restaurant location he'd opened in April of 2003, Vico's Downtown. Popular Café Vico on Federal Highway near Sunrise Boulevard -- a place I'm drawn back to with scary regularity -- had spawned a twin on Broward Boulevard: same menu of homemade ravioli and veal Marsala, same gallant service, and a wine list slightly pared down from the original's 250 bottles. But when I called Vico's Downtown last week, a recorded message said dinner was a no-go. You can get a lunch of sandwiches and deli specials Monday through Friday. You can order takeout. Or you can book the space at night for big, family-style meals for private parties.

"I was competing with myself," Vico told me ruefully when I flagged him down last weekend after dinner at the old place. "My regular customers were splitting between the two locations, and there wasn't enough business to justify keeping them both open for dinner." I took a bite of Vico's blessedly bittersweet chocolate mousse pie and considered this. "Plus, my nephew was managing the place -- doing a fine job, but the long hours were getting to him."

There's a lesson. If you're going to open a satellite, you've got to put more than one interstate exit between Thing One and Thing Two. And you've got to get somebody to run the second location who has the same demon work ethic as a Brazilian émigré with a wife and two kids to feed.

Two years, Vico indicated as I drained the black dregs of my espresso, was long enough to wait for the dinner business to take off. "Maybe we'll do something completely different with the second spot," he said. "Since I'm from Brazil, we could do a steak house or something."

I'd love to know how many South Americans are running terrific neighborhood Italian joints in Broward County. I think Café Vico was the first restaurant I ever visited in Lauderdale, and its charm hasn't faded for me despite the importunities of younger, snazzier eateries, chefs with longer résumés, or Italian-cuisine burnout. Restaurateurs could use a Vico crash course in décor, for one thing -- the place is beautiful in the way that Hollywood actresses are beautiful: It radiates. As it happens, framed black-and-white stills of movie divas line the walls here -- a young Bette Davis, sultry prima donna, looking up from under pale eyelashes; bombshell Monroe in a scoop-neck top. An old film projector balanced in a nook and some ancient still cameras complete the effect. This interior takes the gracious elegance of Lauren Bacall and crosses it with the vivid sensuality of Sophia Lauren. Terra-cotta tiles on the floor, deep burnished woods at the bar. Melted-butter-colored walls, gleaming cobalt water glasses, hand-painted Italian pottery. Two faux ceilings seem to open into an azure sky, glowing like a backlit slab of aquamarine, the very color of the afterlife.

Vico, whose family name is actually Rodriguez (so many customers were calling him "Vico" that he unofficially adopted it), was headwaiter and managing partner at Café Vico when he convinced husband-and-wife team Victor Velasquez and Carlleen Wilson -- who now own PrimaNotte in downtown Hollywood -- to sell it to him in 1998. Vico; his wife, Éclair; and their two daughters put their imprimatur on the place, using their savings, loans from friends, and credit cards to gradually expand it, one room at a time, from a tiny, 28-seat space into a generously proportioned café that now occupies almost an entire block and seats a lively 130. Marco Vico's background as headwaiter pays off in outstanding service. A small, trim man of quiet energy and a quick smile, he greets all customers with old-world panache, kissing the hands of the ladies, bowing to the gentlemen. And throughout your meal, the nimble staff in their dark shirts and trousers never treat you with anything less than the highest consideration. "I tell my staff, 'Look at the person's face. How did he react when he took his first bite?'" Vico says. "You have to be a little bit of a psychologist." Finished plates are cleared unobtrusively, glasses are refilled, a complicated recitation of specials is executed. Nothing is rushed.

As good as the service is, I think it's still trumped by Vico's hand-made pastas and seafood soups -- what you remember, finally, when all the frills are peeled away, are the particular flavors of fresh buffalo mozzarella, a perfectly ripe tomato, a chiffonade of cinnamon-scented basil. The friend who introduced me to the place was a local chef, and I still remember her look of smug pride. Her appreciation for, say, a zuppa di calamari ($9.95) couldn't have been greater if she'd cooked it herself. I recall exactly what I ate that night four years ago -- the carpaccio di salmone ($11.95); a salad of mixed greens, goat cheese, and blueberries ($9.95); and freshly made green and white papardelle with sausage and rapini ($18.95).

Café Vico is bigger by one whole room since then. The menu has remained relatively static over the years, as has its big list of interesting Italian wines, but each night offers a lively array of specials -- the osso buco, a couple of fish dishes, two or three special pastas, and an extra appetizer or two.

We started our meal with heavy white rolls dipped in a bowl of garlicky, herbed olive oil, a few sips of Super Tuscan ($8.50, served by the glass), a special salad made with fresh mango, orange slices, strawberries, blueberries, and mixed greens ($9.95), and a bowl of pasta in fagioli ($4.95). This time around, I was a little disappointed with my salad. I've perfected a replica of Vico's special salad at home, with a few variations. I make mine with goat cheese, blueberries, walnuts, and cider dressing -- but the point is, I stole it from the master. This salad was pretty pricey for a plate of greens and fruit. The oranges and other fruit had a slightly metallic off-taste that marred what should have been a delightful, fresh, early-summer salad (mangoes, as we know, are the consolation prize God provides us for living through August in Florida).

Our pasta in fagioli was classic, thin ribbons of pasta in a base fragrant with tomato and bits of pancetta, white beans, and melt-in-your-mouth escarole; if this soup could talk, it would say, "Buon appetito!"

A plate of eight big ravioli, stuffed with chicken, diced grilled peppers, and ricotta ($17.95) and sauced with fat black cherries in a superb creamy red wine reduction, was outstanding. The pastas are really the thing at Vico; if you go and don't order one, you're just not getting what this place is about. So often they're decorative as well as delicious, striped with squid ink, spinach or beet juice, or multicolored strands tossed together, like the green and white papardelle. In this case, wide strips of pink in the center of each ravioli picked up the color of the cherries and wine -- a tart-sweet marriage that had us oohing and ahhing, contrasted with the peppery chicken center and those deliciously al dente sheets of pasta.

My big grilled tuna steak ($29.95), lightly salted, cooked rare in the center as requested, was a fine piece of fish given a bit of pizzazz with sour hearts of palm, chunks of tomato, and diced baby asparagus spears. It was very good, but the accompanying vegetables -- a rather plain piece of broccoli and a ho-hum pool of sweet potatoes -- didn't, I think, add much in either presentation or flavor. And the price tag was a bit of a surprise -- I'd suggest that servers price at least the most expensive dishes when they rattle off the specials. Virtuous as I felt with my high-protein, carb-free entrée, I'd never take this route again. Next time, it's the lasagna Bolognese for me ($16.95), or the spaghetti Bugati with jumbo shrimp ($21.95) or that amazing agnolotti rosa ($15.95), a dish I still crave whenever I'm feeling jumpy or sad -- it's an edible massage, psychotherapy session, and hot bath in pasta form.

We loved our chilled chocolate mousse pie ($7.95), a stroke of airy delicacy that's an ideal ending for what tends to be a heavy meal. Vico's usually serves a complimentary glass of sambucca with dessert, but not this time, and we missed it.

I came away with the feeling that Café Vico is dealing with a growth spurt that may have thrown my long-time favorite ever so slightly off balance. The place is much bigger now, and Vico is spending mornings and afternoons at Vico's Downtown, which may occasionally mean lapses in the kitchen or front of the house. Those lapses are so minor that they almost don't bear mentioning. Our bill came to $120 for two with tip and a couple of glasses of wine, so this restaurant is still in the moderate range, relatively, in a town where the privilege of dining out never comes cheap. Until Café Vico gets back up on its toes -- operating at peak flavor and performance -- I'd go for the fresh pastas (an incredible value), their famous osso buco and other veal dishes, which never disappoint, and the shellfish. And I'd go for the comforting surety of being well taken care of, which has never wavered.

"When somebody sits down to dinner, it's a sacred moment," Vico says. "I'm not just serving food. I love what I do. I'm singing a song."

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Cafe Vico

1125 N. Federal Highway
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304

954-565-9681

www.cafevicorestaurant.com


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