I must be the last soul in Fort Lauderdale to suck up a strand of spaghetti at Il Mulino. The joint has been around for two decades, providing heaps of homemade pasta as well as explaining why Tuscans and Milanese are getting as fat as New Brunswickians and Lauderdale Lakers. Il Mulino's famously piled platters of garlic rolls are an open casting call for the sequel to Supersize Me — Supersize Me Too. Eat here regularly and you'll get yourself girth and a couple of chins to rival the late, great Pavarotti. Now if only you could carry a tune...
I interviewed friends about Il Mulino before my first foray there, and everybody had an opinion: R. hated the place; he was still shuddering over the gigantic scoop of goat cheese that had been plopped on his noodles. E. didn't much like it either, but he found himself regularly and inexplicably carrying home styrofoam cartons of Mulino's fettuccine; in fact, the night we ate there, E. was spotted skulking through the parking lot, wearing dark glasses and carrying a plastic bag that smelled suspiciously of garlic. B. was hooked on the place's veal piccata; he had this monkey on his back so bad that he'd never ordered any other dish there since the time he'd first eaten it, at age 6, so he couldn't tell me a damned thing about the dozens and dozens of Mulino temptations he'd repeatedly scorned. J. was wild for the homemade bucatini and the sausage sauce. His brother-in-law had an enduring yen for Mulino's torta ripiena, a huge calzone filled with eggplant, chicken, mushrooms, and about 50 billion other ingredients.
Then there were the cyberspace contrarians: The place was hideously uneven and the service certainly the worst in Broward, they maintained. Or it had been so consistent over 20 years that so-and-so had never had a bad meal. The terrific, friendly waitresses couldn't do enough for you. The anelli, a coal-oven-baked dough stuffed with goodies like chicken, pine nuts, and cranberries, was a stroke of genius. Or the vodka sauce on the gnocchi was pathetic, and they bought it from somewhere else anyway. Thank God the kitchen wasn't afraid to use a lot of garlic! Try the pizza — it's suuuuper!
If there's another restaurant in Fort Lauderdale that has spawned this much dissension, I'd sure like to see it. The only thing anybody agrees on is that Mulino's prices somehow got stuck around 1988. For ten bucks, you can still get a dish of pasta there that would feed an African village.
I had to settle the question of Il Mulino once and for all. Here's my verdict (now shut up already):
Burrata ($14.95). I wouldn't trade Il Mulino's antipasti platter of imported burrata with prosciutto for all the tea-infused tartares on Top Chef. They don't make the cheese, which is a Puglian specialty, but they sure deserve credit for serving it at this price on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Cut open a whole burrata and it oozes pure cream with just the right bit of tang. Sliced, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, scattered with a frisson of fresh basil, and outfitted in frilly waves of prosciutto, a wedge or two of tomato, and a couple of puffy and crisp triangles of crostini, this is one dish I'd definitely want to have on a desert island, preferably served by comely boys in grass skirts. When the burrata ran out, I'd eat the boys. I hear they're delicious with a big Amarone.
Calamari fritti ($8.95). You can walk three paces in any direction in Fort Lauderdale and find better squid. A pale, soggy batter is helped not one whit by a messy dipping cup of lifeless marinara. Skip.
Shrimp with polenta ($12.95). A working example of everything going right and wrong at Il Mulino. The polenta, a traditional cornmeal cake, has an addictive, buttery flavor and soothing texture that nicely complements the grilled portobello cap that's served with it. They top the polenta with porcini-sausage cream (one of their stock sauces, which is good on pasta too; taken together, the polenta and sausage sauce resemble Southern grits with sausage gravy, particularly in their caloric load). But the cooks might as well leave off the couple of desiccated shrimp unless they plan to buy them fresher and turn down the heat.
Wait a sec — you're not going anywhere yet. That was just the antipasti.
An efficient, friendly waitress clears your plates. And then:
Walnut-encrusted sea bass with risotto (a special, $21.95). Boy, did we hit the jackpot with this one. I haven't eaten a piece of fish this moist and lively in a Florida restaurant for under $32 in years. I would have been thrilled even if they'd served it to me on an otherwise empty plate. Turns out, this yummy, fragrant flesh in its delicate walnut crust reclines on the downiest bed of lemony, parmesan-cheesy risotto, cooked "to the tooth." They drizzle the whole package with a perfectly respectable roasted red pepper cream sauce. But the half-dozen crumbled, sausage-crusted mussels, added as a garnish, are unnecessary and unappetizing.
Pass those icky mussels off to your partner, who may be pining for a little flair if she's digging into her plate of cheese ravioli with red sauce ($11.95). Beyond the fact that the ravioli, stuffed with ricotta, parm, Swiss, and mozz, is homemade and tasty, there's not much to recommend it, and I have serious issues with the tomato sauce. Somebody's been dipping into the sugar bowl; I don't think you'd be able to blind-taste much difference between Il Mulino's thin, long-suffering red sauce and Prego's. It's true, I've got a bias for fresh, tart, chunky marinara made with good tomatoes. So sue me.
Eggplant parmigiana ($15.95). Nothing technically wrong with this one. Several layers of eggplant are interspersed with mozzarella and tomato sauce. It's cooked through and served hot. Could use a pinch of oomph in the spicing.
Fettuccine with mushrooms and sausage ($15.95). Here's where you'd joyfully fork over some extra cash for a bit of finesse in the presentation. The dish is humongous, and it's uniformly grayish-brown. The weird, thin rectangle of sausage is rhino-colored; so are the mushrooms; ditto the sauce coating the pachydermishly hued pasta. The whole thing is about as cheerful as a late January afternoon in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, you can't skip it with a clear conscience because it tastes pretty good, in a gloopy, heavy, mushroomy, creamy kind of way. The unfortunate B., forced into this sticky embrace by the absence of his beloved veal piccata (they'd run out that night), ate it all, along with six or seven defiantly garlicky rolls dripping with oil. I didn't ask how he slept that night.
Bucatini mare monte ($16.95). I'd also like to take several thousand pounds of Mulino's house-made bucatini to my desert island, although I wouldn't need the mare (more overly blackened shrimp) or the monte (mushrooms, mushrooms everywhere) or even the shaved ricotta. I agree with J., who said he'd rather eat these exquisite and dense round noodles tossed in some good olive oil with a little parsley, basil, and grated Parmesan. Woeful news it is, then, that Mulino won't serve the bucatini that way, either as a substitution or a side order. We can only dream.
Zuppa di pesce ($21.95). Shellfish and other marine life served over extra-tender linguine that absorbs its red sauce. It's a little bland for my palate, but A. said it was the most comforting of comfort foods, and J. raved about the melting quality of the pasta. I'm no fan of any of the seafood I tasted at Mulino with the exception of the excellent sea bass, but the calamari rings in the zuppa were tender; the shrimp, fish chunks, and mussels were palatable; and altogether, there was a nice, subtle undercurrent of shellfish broth.
Warm vanilla bread pudding with Gran Marnier custard. Just kidding! If you can eat dessert after all this, you're a trooper. Feel free to let me know how much you liked it... And also how Mrs. Fracatelli, your next-door neighbor, thought it was too sweet and not at all like the one she used to always order when her sister lived on Miami Beach, etc., etc.