Restaurant Reviews

Anybody Home?

The message was short and to the point: A former colleague, one who had subbed for me while I was on maternity leave, had written to my editor about a great sidewalk pasta place he had found on the Broadwalk at Hollywood beach. He was astonished that I hadn't yet sniffed out this little gem, the only real fine dining on Hollywood beach, run by some guys who actually hail from Italy. Was I falling down on the job or what?

I hope he will allow me to be even more succinct: Back off, temp-boy! I guess I've been busy sampling the half-million other Italian places in South Florida, also run by people whose forefathers called the big boot home.

You see, when it comes to Italian restaurants in South Florida, the cliché "a dime a dozen" doesn't even apply. We're actually cheaper than that, more like a penny per thousand semolina-slingers, what with all the transplanted or multigenerational Italians -- not only from the peninsula itself but by way of New York City, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, even Japan. So in order to get me to some hole-in-the-seawall in Hollywood, something must distinguish this spot from its innumerable brethren. And it takes more than one recommendation to bring me to yet another spaghetti-and-meatball establishment. That's why I visited only after I coincidentally heard from another former colleague, also a denizen of Hollywood, who thought this place was the tops. (I'd suspect a conspiracy, but really, who would bother?)

As it turns out, plenty demarcates Café del Maxx, the pasta palace in question, but not all of these traits are exactly endearing. The lack of restrooms on the premises means that customers must ask the staff for the tokens that permit entry to the communal bathroom down the block. Even more irksome is the apparent difficulty chef-proprietors Massimo and Luca Malacchi have with opening the house during the hours listed on the door.

I visited for lunch on a weekday when the café was supposed to open at noon. But when I got there at about 11:45, the patio restaurant was sealed up tight, with blond wood tables stacked on top of one another and the menu board, advertising lunch specials, pulled inside. And while I am generally not impatient when there's wine to be had (a glass of which I ordered at the neighboring outdoor café while I waited to meet my guest that day), I was concerned by the seemingly complete lack of activity inside the restaurant. The lights were off, the cash register sealed and quiet, and even numerous phone calls placed to the restaurant yielded nothing more than "Please leave a message" intoned in the voice of the computer from War Games. Did I really want to lunch at an eatery that didn't have enough foresight even to leave a message stating the name of the restaurant and its hours of operation, let alone answer the phone during its ostensible operating hours?

Of course not, which is why at 12:15 my guest and I walked down the Broadwalk to quell our disappointment with "frozen libations" and batter-dipped, deep-fried grouper fingers at O'Malley's, a long-time favorite establishment catering to the beach crowd. After sufficient refreshment, we walked back to Café del Maxx to check the status and found the tables had finally been taken outdoors, while employees lounged inside. When we asked why they hadn't been opened earlier, they merely shrugged. "Oh, we were in a meeting," one guy tossed out. (What were they discussing, profit margins?) "I'll serve you now," he offered despite the takeout box of Buffalo wings I had in my hand.

"Thanks," I managed, after retrieving my jaw from the Broadwalk. "We've already eaten."

If losing out on our business made any impact on the staff, I couldn't see it, which leads me to a bit of friendly advice to the proprietors: If lunch business on the Broadwalk at Hollywood beach is so negligible that you don't mind holding closed-door meetings during lunch hours, take the next step and limit your schedule to dinner only. Indeed, a subsequent evening excursion to the Café del Maxx revealed that, when it is open, the restaurant ably fills a fine-dining void on this particular strip of sand.

Unfortunately the servers at Café del Maxx sometimes show as shaky a grasp of the menu as they do of the hours of operation. When our waiter at dinner one evening enthused about a special antipasto italiano, we asked him what was on it. Aside from the usual suspects such as homemade mozzarella, which turned out to be a rather bland, gooey substance, he promised that a more unusual ricotta salata-and-seafood salad, a ceviche-like combo, was included. But the platter, presenting a few nice hunks of the dry, flavorful ricotta, came sans shrimp, calamari, or anything that bore a resemblance to shellfish and mollusks. When we inquired after the seafood salad, he told us that the chef was running out of it and decided not to put any on the plate. But the waiter then brought us a separate bowl of the pleasantly marinated seafood.

Other items also don't arrive as billed on the menu. An entrée of so-called grilled shrimp-and-calamari skewers bore no grill mark; rather the critters had been crusted with bread crumbs first and retained a hint of grease, implying they'd been fried or at least dipped in some kind of shortening. We enjoyed the texture of the seafood, particularly the tender calamari rings, but I'd have preferred them to be simply grilled as the menu stated, which would have better suited the baby greens that cushioned them.

Still other elements of the restaurant are elliptic by implication. Café del Maxx, which imports a number of organic tomato sauces and spreads from Italy to advertise on the back of the menu and sell as retail, gives customers a wonderfully crusty loaf of bread to start the meal. But the bread is surprisingly neither homemade nor Italian. When we asked the waiter, he told us proudly that the bread was made from unbleached flour -- and that it was imported in raw dough form from Spain and then baked on the premises.

Criticisms notwithstanding, Café del Maxx can be a wonderful place to go if the only expectations you hold are for outstanding pasta. Stuffed pastas were unquestionably exceptional, especially a dish of ravioli stuffed with Gorgonzola and walnuts, covered with Alfredo sauce, and garnished with roasted red peppers. The bread came in handy here, extending the life of the dish long after the sumptuous, al dente pillows had been devoured. Lasagna was also a treat, a generous square fully laden with ground meat, marinara, and oozing cheese.

Café del Maxx doesn't serve much in the way of steak or chicken except when these materials run as specials, but three different kinds of veal scaloppini are always available. We sampled some overly pounded medallions dotted with "cherry tomatoes" (actually grape tomatoes) topped with a thick black olive-caper sauce that was pleasantly intense but could have used a little thinning. We far preferred the veal ground and served inside delicately yielding cannelloni, dressed with a robust but not overpowering tomato-cream sauce.

The staff brought dessert -- homemade chocolate-chip biscotti -- automatically and on the house, so diners don't really need to go to any great length to have an agreeable experience at this sidewalk café: a glass or two of pinot grigio, a pasta, and some cookies with espresso. Combined with the view of the ocean and the breezes blowing in from the sea, that's all Maxx really needs to stay in business. That and of course the consistency to open when it says it will, staff meetings aside.