Best Drive-Through Coffee 2009 | Expresso | Food & Drink | South Florida

At Starbucks, customers have to learn another language just to order a large cup of coffee ("You mean a venti?"). To escape the cold, annoying state of the corporate coffee­house, run in the opposite direction — toward Expresso. This funky little drive-through joint is not so much a coffee shop as a coffee shack, a tiny wooden house-like building where a handwritten menu takes up most of a wall. When the friendly staff members approach your window (they come out to your car if the line is even three cars long), they speak your language: asking whether you want your café con leche with a double or single shot of espresso; your American coffee with a little or a lot of milk. Apparently, the proprietors of this family-owned business have learned some crowd-pleasing tricks in their 17 years of operation. They scribble a trivia question on a chalkboard each morning. They sell cigarettes both by the pack and individually (50 cents per). They round out the menu with a lovely assortment of bagels, croissant sandwiches, fresh fruit (for just $1.50!), and a mean lentil soup. Now that's downright bellissimo.

When Giovanni Rocchio cooks, everybody listens: There's the slap of fresh pasta dough, the susurrations of corn being sliced from the cob and of herbs torn by hand, the crackle of sparks from a wood oven, and the harmonies the whisk makes singing in a copper bowl. Rocchio, who cooked at his parents' Plantation restaurant as a teen and then sought his fortune in New York's best kitchens — Piccholine, Fiamma — returned home a couple of years ago and opened Valentino's in a small, plain space on Federal Highway. And there he created an ingenious wine list, hung oversized antique mirrors, and put together a menu that manages to encapsulate everything you love about traditional peasant Italian cooking without ever really touching down on that rustic turf — as if what his kitchen really does, at heart, is cook up feelings. At worst, Rocchio's dishes are failed but interesting experiments. At best — like the sauces incorporating sea urchin roe or lobster coral, salads loaded with wild mushrooms and parsley root, vegetable blossoms stuffed with rare, artisanal cheeses, duck cured in coffee, or an almost absent-minded handful of warm green apples and pancetta on the side of a plate — they're purely expressive, a dinner-hour encounter with a beautiful mind.

Chelsea Scholler

Falafel platters and pitas are not usually something you order as a main course at a swanky restaurant. The best falafel dishes are most often found at "faster" food eateries where the food is fresh but simple. Greek Express, located in the midst of the cheesy tourist shops that dominate the west side of the Fort Lauderdale Strip, provides a quick bite for locals looking to get away from Beach Place and actually enjoy the beach and good food. The spiced chickpea balls are fried, and the resulting texture is a perfect blend of crunch on the outside and a tender core. Get your falafel with hummus, on top of a Greek salad, as part of a platter with fries and hummus, or in a pita with lettuce, tomato, onion, and hummus. If you have to wait more than five minutes, the view of the beach will remind you why you live in South Florida.

Chelsea Scholler

There was a time in this country when fast food meant something other than overprocessed, frozen, globally distributed chunks of sodium (that should probably not be called "food"). The old concept was a brilliant one: fresh, hot food for the working folks who put in long hours and didn't have time to make dinner, served by clean-cut young Americans in paper hats. It's an old-fashioned idea that has been alive and well at Jack's since 1972. The patties are made from nothing but lean beef, cut and ground twice daily on site. The fries are soft, cut fresh. And the condiments and toppings are abundant — not squeezed from a tiny foil packet. It's not often you say this of a hamburger restaurant, but if every "fast food" joint were more like Jack's, the world would be a better place.

Slow Food Glades to Coast leader Diane Campion has to keep a lot of balls in the air, but she makes juggling Florida eggplants, oranges, and rounds of fresh mozzarella look like a breeze. Apart from a full-time job as a sales rep for Prime Line Distributors, Campion has organized and hosted the jolliest food events of the year: a fresh, green smorgasbord of slow food shindigs including lavish dinners at Café Boulud and 3030 Ocean, locavore cocktail parties at Forte and "green drink" menus for Earth Day, panel discussions on buying local, and demonstrations on creating edible gardens. Campion is a regular presence at national conferences advocating for humane, ecologically sound farming practices. She shows up to participate in strategy sessions for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has lobbied Gov. Crist for recognition of the plight of enslaved Florida farm workers. And she's a walking encyclopedia of worldwide food knowledge — sourcing rare cheeses from Italy, spreading awareness of Florida clam farming, gathering under her wing families who raise beef humanely and farm fish safely, and working with chefs to encourage them to buy from local growers. Campion has changed the way we eat in South Florida. But just as important, she's brought gastronomic joy to the table.

Most waterfront restaurants in Broward County are good for oysters and other bounties of the sea, but French fries? Usually you'll get your standard fries to accompany a grouper sandwich, and you're happy if they are at least somewhat warm and your squeeze container of ketchup isn't empty. Ho-hum. Not at the Cove. That large and sprawling restaurant on the Intracoastal has fries that make you drool like Homer Simpson on a Krispy Kreme. They're all battered up and don't so much melt in your mouth as meld with your taste buds in a way known to make burly, full-grown men become giddy. We don't know the secret. Frankly, we don't want to know the secret. They put a smile on your face — isn't that really all you need to know?

True Italian gelato is not ice cream; it is richer and creamier and has a velvety texture that melts in your mouth. Paciugo knows this, and it shows. The amaretto chocolate chip, for instance, has a rich almond-cookie flavor that washes over the tongue and lingers for a couple of seconds before it's augmented with a hint of dark chocolate. The chocolate/black-cherry swirl has a similarly complex taste, alternating between milk and dark chocolates with cherry overtones. It's more like drinking wine than eating ice cream. Cristina and Ugo Ginatta and their son, Vincenzo, brought their gelato-making method straight from their hometown of Turin, Italy, and spent the past decade perfecting it, starting with a store in Dallas. The family business has grown to include nearly 50 gelaterias nationwide and a repertoire of 200 recipes. With hundreds of rotating flavors, Paciugo will keep your taste buds entertained year-round.

The dance of the seven veils makes a fine diversion, but no belly-wobbling, sphinx-eyed siren can stop a hungry stomach from staging its own entertainment: Sometimes you really want spectacular spanikopita rather than smashed crockery and drop-dead dolmades instead of dancing dames. Ouzo Blue provides the sustenance to maintain your mood with classic Greek dishes straight out of Chef Otis Giakis' mama's recipe files. Smoky spit-roasted lamb is stuffed into an insanely soft pita with yogurt as thick as cheese for a fabulous gyro; oversized dolmades dress a super-rich filling of minced lamb and spiced rice in a swaddling of sour grape leaves; a secret recipe of jumbo shrimp with warm spices arrives, like all Ouzo's entrées, with a side of addictive green beans stewed with tomatoes — just the kind of fuel you need to carry you through the rest of the evening, because you won't be going anywhere. By 10 p.m., the party crowd has drifted in to quaff Ouzo's Greek-themed cocktails, flirt, toss napkins in the air, and shake booty with the belly dancers — order the pistachio-studded baklava for a late-night energy boost and you'll be hoofing it on a table by midnight.

In 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt took a lot of flak for her plan to entertain the visiting king and queen of England with a picnic of hot dogs. The king, it turned out, was so smitten with the "delightful hot dog sandwich" that he begged for another one. Lately, the dog is having its day again — the American frankfurter has become so exquisite that it's hardly recognizable as junk food anymore. The 100 percent kosher beef frank served at Palm Beach Grill is of this refined, purebred species: It comes cradled in the downy folds of an artisinal roll, oozing char-flavored juices beneath blankets of sautéed vegetables and imported cheese. Modern-day kings and queens arrive straight from society balls to scarf down these bejeweled ballpark snacks, and PB Grill has even upped the ante by pairing its "silver service hot dog" ($12) with a side of creamy, mustard-infused, herb-flecked deviled eggs. Word is, local royalty is asking for seconds.

Look, this place has incredible chopped salads, chock-full of meats, cheeses, fresh romaine lettuce, peppers, colorful veggies, and tangy original sauces. You can even get your "salad" in a huge, tightly rolled wrap too big to finish in one sitting. The prices are reasonable, and the service is great. But there's a problem: The fun stops and the doors close at 6 p.m. Even earlier on the weekends. Now, it's no secret that a large percentage of the Boca population is, shall we say, mature. And sometimes, with such maturity, the daily schedule skews forward a bit. Mornings move up, evenings get earlier, and the air conditioning gets warmer. But if you happen to stop by Vinny's All Day Café for dinner (at a normal dinner time, not Boca time), you'll find the place closed. And it's frustrating to stand outside a restaurant with "all day" in the name when it's closed. The food is fantastic, but even in Boca, that isn't all day.

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