Question, readers: How long are you willing to wait for your next glass of wine?
In my family, it's all about timing. If you're a pro, you clamp your fist around the Rancho Zabaco bottle as you're vacuuming the last whiff of Zin-infused air from your goblet. It takes planning and reflexes to outmaneuver mothers, brothers, and 80-year-old aunts with decades of bottle-snagging experience. At our holiday table, you'd need stop-motion photography to detect an empty wine glass.
Maybe I'm singular, but my favorite parties include a host trolling the floor for ladies whose cocktails are set to expire. I love the flawless understatement when someone offers to "freshen" my drink and there's not even a muddled mint leaf left in my highball tumbler. Freshen away, darling. "Who's ready for another round?" is music I can't help but sing to.
Pa' Degennaro's, 4331 N. Ocean Dr., Fort Lauderdale. Open daily 5 till 11 p.m. Call 954-351-0310.
So, how long are you willing to wait for a refill on your vino? Choose one:
a) Thirty seconds, but only if I'm distracted by the fireball ballooning from the kitchen.
b) The several delicious moments it takes the hunky sommelier to pop a fresh bottle of Roederer Cristal into my ice bucket.
c) Next glass of wine? Didn't we move on to cognac and stingers, like, four hours ago?
I found myself more precisely engaged with this conundrum than I cared to be during a recent meal at Pa' Degennaro's, the invincible old favorite of generations of pasta-craving Lauderdalians, a restaurant that through a couple of makeovers and many chefs has held onto its base clientele like a showman with a mad tiger by the tail. The latest renovation is pretty, with a bar in one room and warm wooden booths, parquet floors, and antique marble-topped buffets in the other. I found myself traipsing dramatically down these polished aisles holding my empty wine glass aloft as waiters, busboys, and hostesses parted around me like waves around the prow of the QEII. Eventually, I managed to arouse the suspicion that my figurative cupboard was bare. Once I'd implanted this notion in the benumbed noggin of my frantic waiter, minutes dragged like hours until a refill finally materialized.
It wasn't the waiter's fault. He and every other server were so completely in the weeds that they were sprinting from table to table. I can't remember when I last saw waiters actually flat-out run during a meal service.
Our servers, a duo of cute French Canadians with charming accents, had managed to get our appetizers out in fairly good time, dishes so tasty I'd been distracted from the critically low level of my Steele Pinot Noir ($9.75). We'd had a fruity eggplant cake ($9.95), breaded and fried, a buttery ball of crunch enclosing a melting, bittersweet interior, touched up with bright, sharp flecks of pepper and drizzled with lemon pecorino vinaigrette. The cake was supported by alternating slices of yellow heirloom tomatoes and portobello mushrooms, tart against mellow, and a springy green salad tossed in vinaigrette. Fabulous.
We'd eaten bruschetta three ways: fat slices of lightly charred bread painted with mushroom tapenade and balancing a couple of garlic grilled shrimp; another with a rosy ribbon of prosciutto, crumbling fontina, and leaves of fresh arugula; and the last with blobs of buffalo mozzarella, snipped basil leaves, and chopped tomato ($10.95). We'd forked meaty clams ($12.95) out of their shells, steamed with white wine and scattered with strips of chorizo, diced tomatoes, slivers of garlic, and wilted, pale green leeks, a bowl of food so completely engaging that you wanted to bury your head in it. We'd shaken a bottle of intense olive oil, set on our table, over all of it. My God, we were happy. And we had not, after gorging on these generous appetizers, even the tiniest twinge of appetite left.
So the 25-minute delay before our entrées showed up wasn't necessarily bad news. We talked about the pursuit of happiness, about the Ramones, about breaking the rules. Our ample bellies were full of goodness. After a while, though, I started trying to catch somebody's eye. Conversation sputtered. My wine glass had been empty for what felt like hours.
Hotelier and Chef Patrick O'Connell has a little game he plays with the staff at his Inn at Little Washington. He has them assign each restaurant table a number based on the customers' mood when they show up, at least as the staff perceives it. A one is high dudgeon — a couple on the verge of divorce. An eight is very merry indeed — a party celebrating a hostile takeover. The waitron's job is to raise each table's mood by several points.
I hate to sound like an insufferable picker of nits, but for better or worse, it's my job description. So: A glass of wine left sitting empty for half an hour could squelch even the jolliest diner's mood. She may slide as little as two or as many as five degrees on O'Connell's scale, but as her number bottoms out, even the most gracious server isn't going to pull off a recovery.
Professional that I am, I can judge food fairly even when it arrives after an interminable, liquorless wait, but will all DeGennaro's customers be so sanguine? I wouldn't want the skillfully roasted duck entrée ($18.95) to suffer any fallout from bad service. Chef Mennan Tekeli handled his duck with finesse (Tekeli, a local veteran, worked at Dennis Max's restaurants for years). From the beautifully braised baby carrots and delicate nest of French beans to the crackling, candied sweetness of roasted skin on breast and drumsticks, this guy knows how to pair his flavors. He's come up with a sweet potato gratin, thinly sliced and cooked in layers with a ton of butter, like potatoes Anna — a fine hunk of autumnal, vegetal earthiness to emphasize the zingy bing-cherry sauce drizzled over the bird.
And I wouldn't want to see anything happen to DeGennaro's pan-fried yellowtail snapper ($24.95); dressed in caramelized onion, it had a crunchy coating of herby bread crumbs, the fish luscious beside a mound of garlic mashed potatoes and grilled grape tomatoes, miniature balloons that popped open to deliver a rush of pungent juice. A bit of velvety sautéed escarole and lightly oiled beans added notes of green.
They were out of veal chops, so we substituted veal Sinatra ($22.95, called veal Degennaro on the menu), pounded scaloppini cooked in sweet marsala with button mushrooms, layered with sautéed spinach and prosciutto, cloaked in gooey provolone, and served with a swirl of emerald broccoli rabe. Ropes of linguine, presented in an off-kilter bowl with an assertively fresh marinara, had good, fleshy texture.
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Unbelievably, we managed to put away three side dishes and two desserts after all of this: a competent mushroom risotto ($10.95, which needed more acid or salt), a plate of Gorgonzola fries ($5.95, mushy, greasy, aggressive), and a bland escarole with beans ($6.95). I wouldn't recommend any of them, and Lord knows you don't need to eat this much anyway unless you're getting paid to do it. We had three mini canolis ($7.95) filled with pistachios, chocolate chips, and whipped cream. But no matter how stuffed you are, you have to shovel down at least a few bites of Degennaro's carrot cake ($7.95): a moist, buttery sponge stocked with roasted candied pecans, its maple cream cheese frosting slathered on with a trowel. Here's a cake to smash any New Year's diet resolutions to smithereens.
The food's fantastic.
So what's it gonna take to get Pa' Degennaro's to hire some extra waiters, to put a manager on the floor who can attend to necessary niceties when the servers are too slammed to notice the lady sadly crisscrossing the room, empty of glass and even emptier of heart?
It's so simple: She just wants to be wined and dined.