Best Of :: Food & Drink
When Michael di Bella took over Romantico from his mentor, Tonino Tizzano, a few years ago, he didn't hire an interior designer from Miami to hang glittery curtains and space-age uplighting or take on a bevy of PR ladies to spin his "concept" or set up a website with thumping house music and graphic close-ups of dewy basil leaves; he didn't even retrofit his kitchen with subzero coolers. He just went merrily along doing what Tizzano had taught him to do: a simple and silky fettuccini mixed in a parmesan wheel; veal Marsala textured like suede; pristinely fresh poached snapper with olives and tomatoes. And because he hadn't installed those subzero coolers and had so little storage space, di Bella had to keep running out every day to buy each night's ingredients -- which meant, by default, that he was always picking out the freshest fish and the prettiest vegetables. And then too, he'd kept in touch with Tizzano, who'd gone back to Italy (Tizzano was always sending him new ideas, so the menu at Romantico stayed as fresh as the fish). At length, this put him in a place he'd probably never expected to be, as chef-owner of the best restaurant in North Lauderdale. But to look at this tiny place with its handful of tables and to judge from the warm, friendly, and unpretentious way these lovely dishes are served -- from the Sicilian caponata right down to the blissful furls of cannoli -- you'd almost think the idea of di Bella's culinary superiority had never entered his mind.
Maybe he lasted only five episodes on The Apprentice, but Brent Buckman, South Florida's own would-be Trumpster, knows comfort food better than most. Buckman, the portly guy with a penchant for irritating Apprentice teammates with his pushy, plow-through-walls approach, has delved deep into the food dimension. He did this both before his appearance on the show, and he has done it after. Buchman's earlier food explorations gave him that soft, endearingly blimpy figure. His later ones helped him lose 64 pounds. The secret, Buckman says, is his patented "four bagel diet." One bagel for each daily meal and a snack (sometimes with low-fat margarine, sometimes with an eight-ounce portion of sliced meat). Stick to the diet and watch the pounds fade away, he says. (Well, there's the diet and there's also a rigorous schedule on the treadmill.) How do you keep up, week after week, a gruelingly monotonous routine of bagels-bagels-bagels? You have to give yourself a once-a-week treat, the Toronto-born lawyer says. For that, Buckman goes to his favorite restaurant, the Outback Steakhouse on Pine Island Road in Plantation. Keep your Tandoori baked pheasant morsels or Peruvian cui au gratin served on sautéed escarole, Brent says. He'll take Outback's Aussie cheese fries, a messy mixture of gooey yellow cheese and fried potatoes. If he's feeling especially decadent, he throws some bacon chips on top and dips each forkful into a bowl of ranch dressing. "The best cheese fries on the planet," Buckman says with ill-concealed longing. "My goodness, they're to die for."
If you want to hustle through your huaraches, thick, fried tortillas stuffed with barbecued goat (two for $7.99), forget it. Be prepared to linger over chips still sizzling from the fryer with two kinds of fresh salsa (green tomatillo and tomato) while -- on weekends, anyway -- a roving band of trumpet players and guitarists serenades your table. Kick back with a beer (you don't really need to go back to work, do you?), reset your watch to slow time, and sample from a foodie's dream menu of delicious if challenging meats to pack into your tacos. Roast pork, fried beef tripe, pork stomach, beef tongue, spicy pork sausage, beef head, stuffed green peppers, pork in red pepper sauce, fish, shrimp, and vegetarian fillings are priced from $1.69 for a single soft taco to $6.99 for the fanciest burrito -- to eat with the seven different bottles of hot sauce on every table and your choice of corn or flour tortillas. Heartier appetites will warm to seven kinds of dinner soups (sieta mares is $13.99), chicken in mole ($8.99), roast quail ($10.99), enchiladas ($9.99), chimichangas ($8.99), and fajitas ($10.99). Cactus and eggs ($3.99) and huevos rancheros ($3.99) are served all day from the breakfast menu. Nobody speaks a word of English, so if you're linguistically challenged, break out your high school Spanish or be prepared to grunt and point.
You're not cheap; you're just smart. And far-seeing. You know how to stretch a nickel till it howls for mercy. Let the grasshopper detonate his wad on some so-called "prime" or "kobe," along with the $9 sides of creamed spinach and the $15 martinis and crme brlées. Come winter, that overgrown cricket'll have his frozen jaws fused together anyway -- you can bet he's not going to be chowing down on steak -- he'll be lucky to be sucking ice water through a straw! While you, my precious, my practical ant, will be crawling in a straight line right to Beef Eater, with all your little buddies, for another plate of $16 skirt steak doused in chimichuri sauce, and maybe a couple of fried eggs on top -- a piece of meat easily enough for two meals... and damned delicious too! And that $15 bottle of wine waiting for you on the table -- go ahead and open it. Open two, in fact, and keep 'em coming. Nothing goes down with a bottle of red better than a little schadenfreude.
Short of having an actual band of winged seraphim fluttering over that perfect plate of risotto while strumming harps and singing hymns, it's hard to imagine how a meal at Serafina could be any more heavenly. This delicious, romantic retreat in Victoria Park, settled down by a glimmering harbor on the Middle River with jaunty candlelit tables on the outdoor deck and a series of warm, intimate nooks inside, is technically an Italian restaurant. But you'd never know it from the menu. Owner/chef Shari Woods' palate is so imaginative, so all over the map, drawing on influences from the American Southwest (smoked corn soup), the South of France (foie gras paté), the coasts of Spain (rich seafood paella), and the distant deserts of the East (spicy Moroccan tagine), that it's probably safer to call this cuisine Worldly Wise. And then there's the way the menu keeps changing depending on whim and season. Still, you'll have other issues to ponder besides how to classify those luxurious boneless, slow-cooked short ribs in their caramelized wine reduction. You're more likely to be fretting over which wine to choose from Woods' interesting list or frantically calculating what percentage of your annual income you can absolutely afford, if you give up the Netflix subscription and the chess club membership, to devote to return visits.
Better men than we have come to blows over the definition of good pizza -- the question of whether shellfish belongs anywhere near an authentic pie, the composition and thickness of the crust, the shape of the slice, the list of acceptable toppings and the proportions of each, the origin of the species. So unless you want to find yourself nursing a black eye, you might just want to shut up and eat. Still, it's not impossible that a jury of 12 of our impartial brethren might agree that the thing served at Red Rock -- that entity called "Pizza Salsiccia" ($9.50 for a ten-inch, $19.50 for a 16-inch) that comes to the table on a raised metal stand, riddled with airy, blackened bubbles, gritty with semolina, exuding the scent of slow-cooked tomatoes, roasted garlic, and peppery sausages -- might conceivably be the real deal. We're just putting that out there.
Forget it. You can't get in anyway. There are 150 guys ahead of you, and they're all a lot better-looking. Call right now and maybe the girl who answers the phone will put you down for a 5:30 p.m. reservation some Tuesday next month. Of course, you can always try just loafing around outside those elegant doors, pressing your nose to the glass, eyeballing the passing plates of "nuevo Italian" veal meatballs in brodo, the wood-oven-baked foccacia, the golden rotisserie chickens, and the hand-cut pastas, along with the artesian well waters and the hundred-dollar-plus bottles of Amarone. Maybe somebody at the front desk will take pity on your poor pathetic self and squeeze you into a single seat at the bar. And by the way, make a stop at the bank first to check that balance, because this is going to cost you. You'll be paying in frozen pizzas and TV dinners for weeks to come. Actually, come to think of it, you might as well go ahead and put that engagement ring on layaway, because chances are, you'll never get another shot. You've done nothing to warrant an experience this rich, sublime, and delicious -- any more than you've earned the love of a good woman or deserve to have her say yes. But you've always been a lucky son of a bitch, haven't you? It looks like your table is ready.
There are a few other victual options in the 1950s time warp that is the Riverland Shopping Center -- a Cuban cafeteria and a time-honored greasy spoon, for instance -- but Sassano's always has the perfect cure for midday hunger pangs. It's not just the superb, thin cracker-crust and home-made sauce at this family-run joint that make it so noteworthy, nor is it the pocket-change price ($1.60 a slice, ingredients only 35 cents more) but its location. Easy to find? Not unless you're lost and on foot. No bigger than a coat closet, with a painfully cramped kitchen and a counter barely large enough for two stools, Sassano's sits way back in an odd little cul-de-sac that's nearly invisible. It houses obscure oddities like a shoe repair shop and a tiny insurance agency. Howling winds get caught up in this weird little alleyway, spiraling and spinning leaves like that scene in American Beauty, beckoning you toward a well-kept secret that's perfect for that day you want to keep lunch under $5. Just like in the olden days.
Good service doesn't have to mean a matre d' with an accent, waiters dressed in dinner jackets, or a sommelier with a silver cup. You don't always have to shell out the shillings to be treated well either. At SukhoThai, owner Susie and her son Eddie hand out their smiles for free, hailing new and old customers at the door with familial warmth. Eighty percent of the clientele at the 16-year-old restaurant are regular customers -- people keep coming back to see Murphy's Law confounded: For one meal, at least, nothing that can go wrong will go wrong. Drinks, appetizers, entrées, and desserts arrive on an immutable, predictable schedule. Dirty plates are unobtrusively whisked away. There's never a meal auction: Your server knows who gets the Masaman curry and the pad Thai. Water glasses seem to refill themselves. And the cheerful, modest Thai staff has perfected the art of being there without seeming to be there -- always within sight, never hovering. "We're not perfect," Eddie says. "Servers have good and bad days like anybody else. But we tell our staff, treat everybody like a VIP. You never know who you're waiting on."
Your temptation, when you enter this teensy shop downtown, will be to order everything on the sprawling palette of ingredients, but try to restrain yourself. Thing is, if you cram banana peppers and cherry peppers and pickles and olives and capers and jalapeños into the same wrap, all you'll taste is hot tang. Instead, go mild. Start with turkey or chicken or salmon or tuna. Then add sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, bell peppers, spinach, lettuce, fresh tomatoes, onions, sprouts, artichoke hearts, feta cheese, carrots, avocados. (Last year, the shop began stocking avocados after the owner, who works behind the counter, asked a patron whether his was the best salad ever. The patron hesitated, pondered, and replied that it needed avocado. So now you can get organic avocados on your wrap.) Top it all with a dash of oil and balsamic vinegar, for a bit of squish, and you're ready to roll. The whole mess will run you eight bucks, chips and a drink included. Save half for dinner in lieu of grocery shopping.
The legendary 1985 cult film Tampopo searches for the perfect bowl of soup. A contemporary remake could easily find heaven in a bowl of pho at this tiny eatery that's staffed by a superfriendly, always-smiling family. The liquor-license-less joint serves a few other dishes besides pho, but we haven't sampled them in years -- once we became addicted to Pho Nam Do's perfectly appointed Vietnamese beef noodle soup, there was no reason to. A few other Vietnamese restaurants specialize in this radical meal-in-itself, popular as a hearty breakfast back home, but none does it better. The hearty beef stock with just a hint of star anise is unbelievably yummy, the flat, chewy noodles are never sticky, and the thin slices of beef (or tripe and tendon if you're an adventurous sort) are only-just-barely cooked to perfection by the boiling broth. Bean sprouts, culantro, basil leaves, and chili peppers go on top, and then you're set with the most nourishing bowl of goodness imaginable. Our climate doesn't always make hot soup a first-thought favorite, but pho fans are everywhere. Hear that slurping sound?