They Might Be Giants
Del Vecchio's Italian Fishery appears to be run by a mythic race of men who are just, well, larger than the rest of us. They're the guys whose ancestors clambered up and down beanstalks reaching to the sky; who, like a certain Philistine felled by a sling shot, measured "six cubits and a span." Where they walk, crystal wine glasses tremble; silver flatware shudders. And they've collectively amassed, as if to fill all the extra space between their ears, a prodigious knowledge of homemade, New York- and Napoli-style Italian food.
"We went through five recipes for clams oreganato until we found the one we liked," Lou Del Vecchio says. The good and gentle Del Vecchio looms over our table, encouraging our appetites. He's the man responsible for putting stuffed baked jumbo artichokes on the menu ($10.50), a food we'd almost forgotten existed, one we hadn't tasted since our grandmothers — may their sainted souls rest in peace — used to make them. A stuffed artichoke requires the kind of patience old ladies used to have in spades, because you have to mash the bread-crumb/garlic/parsley/Romano cheese stuffing between every frigging leaf by hand. Then you carefully balance those suckers in a tray and steam them for, like, an hour. Needless to say, not too many restaurants want to bother with this kind of shenanigan on a busy Friday night.
Del Vecchio has also given star treatment to his great, great grandmother's recipe for Sunday sauce — serving her righteous combo of rigatoni, slow-cooked sausage, pork, and meatballs in tomato sauce. This is Del Vecchio's first restaurant venture — he's from New York; his wife, Belinda, is a Floridian — and they've teamed up with at least one local pro: Chef Luciano Balzano, who came to Florida from Naples in 1985 and has since manned the stoves at Il Tartuffo, the Addison, and Il Mulino.
You'll recognize the space: It's where the old Hobo's Fish Joint used to be, in its second incarnation. Hobo's chef/owner Steve LaBiner was supposed to act as a "consulting chef" at Del Vecchio's, but he apparently pulled out of the deal three days before their grand opening. Which doesn't really surprise anybody. Chef LaBiner has had his ups and downs over the years. There's no point in rehashing them here (if you're interested, Google "LaBiner" + "loan sharking"). Except to say that, given LaBiner's history, a sort of 21st-century version of Vanity Fair, with big Steve running through credit and investors with all the enthusiasm of Becky Sharp, the phrase "Things didn't work out" isn't exactly a new refrain.
Nearly everything — from the cloud-painted ceiling to the slightly dowdy upholstery to the flat-screen over the bar scrolling through nightly specials — is as LaBiner left it, though now there's a pretty patio out front with umbrellas, and a tiny, screened-in room that holds just six tables and feels very intimate. Balzano and Del Vecchio may have been left holding the sausage when LaBiner scampered off, but it seems to me they're dealing with it fairly gracefully. Del Vecchio's hasn't entirely hit its stride in the short month it's been open, but because Lou is such a good-natured guy and so obviously cares, I'm holding out hope.
They're purveying a strangely old-fashioned aesthetic. The food is heavy — even the dishes you expect not to be, like a polpete appetizer ($10.50, octopus grilled, set on a gigantic, buttery biscuit, and doused in tomato sauce). Anybody on a diet, anybody averse to oil (or salt or sugar), anybody who wants her dinner served in exquisite little portions with rainbow-hued squiggles of tangerine-mango-emulsion, is not going to be happy here. You look at these guys, with their 6-foot-plus frames, their girths the size of a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, and realize that they've simply collected their all-time favorite dishes. They serve them with the implicit directive of mamas everywhere: "Eat. Eat."
"In Naples, we love our fish," Balzano told me by phone. "And we bring the fish whole to the table, because in Italy, nobody wants you to touch their seafood. So I learned how to braise; I learned how to cook from the time I was crawling around on the floor of restaurant kitchens when I was a baby in Torre del Greco." Balzano contributes his family recipe for osso buco ($44.50, with risotto, served Thursday through Saturday) and his mom's olive-oil focaccia, sprinkled with slivers of fried onion (free, in the bread basket), and a slew of fresh seafood specials. There's a daily risotto and a featured pasta. The lunch menu offers "New York Style Seafood: Straight From Mott Street in Little Italy," a choice of soft-shell crab, shrimp, calamari, squid, or shrimp balls over an Italian biscuit with tomato sauce in mild, medium, or hot ($15). There's a classic meatball sub ($9.50) and an Italian Feast ($9.50) that involves a mess of slow-cooked pork, beef, and veal on ciabatta with more of the ubiquitous, hearty tomato sauce.
In their fifth and final iteration, the clams oreganato ($10.50) are delicious, but they're so loaded with baked, buttery bread crumbs that you can hardly find the little clam — you know it's there; you can feel it, like a pea under a mattress. A gargantuan stuffed artichoke is tasty, but it's not particularly pretty to begin with, and it's positively distressing once you've had your way with it, as if an artichoke balloon had exploded a foot above your table. Ditto the polpete. God knows I'm not finicky, and I'll put just about anything in my mouth, but these six-inch-long tentacles would be a lot more appetizing cut into bite-sized pieces, no matter how good they taste. There's something about Del Vecchio's that makes you think of hungry bachelors, of guys gathered for a Sunday game over piles of chicken wings, men who love to eat but aren't particularly picky about presentation. The place really needs a touch of finesse.
And then, some dishes ought to work but don't. Fabulous homemade gnocchi ($21), firm, fleshy little potato-flavored morsels, had been submerged in copious quantities of oily, overly garlicked basil pesto when what they really needed was either (1) way less pesto or (2) a vivid, fresh (or even uncooked) marinara flecked with a few shreds of green herbs. Similarly, fresh brook trout ($28.50) is a perfectly lovely fish that hardly needs so much butter, so many bread crumbs. It's as if these guys fear we're in danger of running a caloric deficit; they're going to make sure that doesn't happen! My favorites were the wildly expensive osso buco ($44), veal shanks slowly braised until they fell off the bone into a rich tomato stew, alongside a perfectly al dente risotto. There's enough to feed two, which makes the price tag easier to swallow, and I recommend splitting it. Branzino (Mediterranean sea bass, $31.50), butterflied, tail on, and given a squirt of lemon, was mild and silky, crosshatched with grill marks. Sautéed green beans came with it, and fried potatoes wearing a golden, crunchy crust.
So (grrrr...) we didn't need the $7 side order of green beans we asked for. I wish somebody in the kitchen, or our waiter, had noted that and offered an alternative — the broccoli rabe or sautéed spinach. These little details will make a big difference to customers in the long run, in the same vein that the complimentary shot of grappa with our tiramisu made us feel like somebody was looking after us. We overheard Del Vecchio telling the party of finely coifed matrons that they'd be passing out homemade limoncello pretty soon too. The tiramisu ($8), served in a bowl, was full of rich cream and mascarpone and coffee and cocoa, so good you wanted to swab out the dish with your finger to get every blob of it (it's made in house, as is the ricotta cheesecake). But again, the presentation was a bit... well, rustic. What might garner raves at the kitchen table needs, I'm afraid, a dash of panache when it's served to paying customers. But just like at Mama's house, there's no chance anybody's going to leave Del Vecchio's hungry. The daily sunset special — three courses for $21.75 — is a fantastic deal. Now if the kitchen will just buckle down and practice making the plates look nice, we'll have a classic Italian definition of truth and beauty.
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