Restaurant Reviews

Fit For a Kingpin

My parents, who love Italian food, went to try a new place they'd heard about in New Jersey, close to where they live. The pasta and meat dishes were fantastic, they were told, and best of all, the place was often featured in HBO's Mob soap opera The Sopranos. My folks were impressed by the fare but mildly disappointed to find that the décor was nothing like they'd seen on The Sopranos. As it turns out, the proprietors admitted, the producers and directors bring their own props when they rent this particular site, transforming a pretty, unpretentious neighborhood pasta house into a shadier arena fit for austere Mafia bosses and their nefarious business deals.

I'm not sure why the makers of the TV series go to such lengths when they could be filming at Pellegrino's Ristorante, a six-month-old Italian joint located in Deerfield Beach. Situated a half-block off North Federal Highway in a shadowy, hidden strip mall, Pellegrino's is the kind of place you know about only if someone tells you. And if you do find your way to the door, chances are you'll think you've walked straight into the Bronx.

Indeed, Pellegrino's is a Mob cliché come to life. A square, rather plain room with just over 50 seats, the Italian eatery features a terra-cotta tile floor, plain white walls, and framed French and Italian advertisements from the '40s on the walls. A tiny two-seat bar fronts the eatery; a rectangular open kitchen backs it up. White linens drape the tables, which are made of unfinished particle board and are matched by scarred hard-back chairs that make your butt itch if you sit too long. The CD jukebox is stocked with standards by Sinatra and other period lounge crooners, and on a good night, when the place is filled with transplanted Brooklynites who call pasta e fagioli "pasta fazoole," you'd swear Ol' Blue Eyes himself (or maybe his ghost) was about to trot through the portal. No way would you sit with your back to the door -- fertile imaginations conjure weapon-toting gangsters as easily as singers.

Despite the prominence of the Pellegrino name -- bottles of San Pellegrino water are displayed, advertisements for the beverage perch on the tables, and busboys wear San Pellegrino Tshirts -- no relationship exists between owner Bobby Pellegrino and the famous sparkling H2O (or the Mafia, for that matter). But Pellegrino can claim affiliation with another famous Italian family, the Raos, known for their eponymous home-style eatery in East Harlem.

Originally from Pollo, Italy, founder Charles Rao died young, about a decade after starting Rao's in 1896. At first it was basically a local bar. When Charles' son Vincent and Vincent's wife, Anna Pellegrino -- see the connection? -- took over, the place turned into a fabulous Italian restaurant, simply because the two of them loved to cook. Rao's became famous for another reason: Over the hundred years it's been in business, it's refused to change. Not only did it stay put when the neighborhood began to fail, but the dining room was never expanded from its original eight tables. So reservations are near impossible to come by, and the average wait for a table is not two to three hours but two to three years.

Pellegrino's is modeled after Rao's to the extent that it uses the same family recipes; Bobby Pellegrino's cousin Frankie even penned the Rao's Cookbook. Pellegrino himself worked at Rao's for 30 years, starting as a bartender. And if you call for a reservation and your name is unfamiliar, you'll be told you can have one only after a certain time of night. (I've dined there twice on Saturdays at 9 p.m., both times the only slot I could get.) It's hard to tell, though, if Pellegrino's is not exaggerating -- one night I had to wait for my table, but the next time there were many empty seats. Certainly there's no better way to seem exclusive than by presenting yourself as such, as long as you're not too extreme about it.

You can also encounter different crowds, which will change your experience slightly. The second meal we ate was sedate, with locals having a quiet night out. But on my first visit, the restaurant was populated by parties who all seemed to know each other, and who enjoyed singing at the top of their lungs in Italian, chain-smoking, and sipping espresso with anisette. In fact we were the only folks who didn't get kissed on the way in. We did get smooched the second time we visited, though, because our waitress recognized us and was savvy enough to realize that we were fast on our way to becoming regulars.

Indeed Pellegrino's is the kind of place where you should establish relationships with the staff, particularly if you have any hope of dining there a year from now. Pellegrino's is one place I can confidently predict will not only be in business, it'll be mobbed. Because yes, the food is that good. From tomato-and-mozzarella salad to tiramisu, it's as impossible to walk away dissatisfied as it is to secure a table.

The menu is simple but fairly extensive, and though portions are meant for individuals, they're easily family-size. Order the fresh fish française main course -- northern flounder, luckily, not southern snapper -- and you'll get not one but two huge fillets quick-fried in an egg batter and partnered by a gigantic serving of vegetable risotto. Chicken scarpariello, large pieces of on-the-bone poultry sautéed with both hot and sweet sausages and bell and cherry peppers, was also mixed with onions and roasted potato quarters. It's a lot of food.

Same with scaloppini of veal, prepared in any number of ways. We gorged ourselves on the Milanese, breaded and elevated by a pair of sausages and tricolore salade, and still had to take half the dish home. We couldn't finish the veal parmigiana, a tangy, cheesy concoction paired with al dente spaghetti and Rao's famous marinara sauce, either. (You can buy it bottled from specialty stores and mail-order companies, though Pellegrino's makes it fresh.) As for the veal chop Valdostano, its size may seem ridiculously overwhelming at first. But once you taste the chop, trimmed of fat and stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella, then finished with a Marsala-mushroom sauce, you just might not be able to stop until it's gone.

Still, despite my guilt over the portions (which occurs whether I finish my meal or have to take it with me), this is precisely the kind of Italian food I like: exactingly prepared but without pretensions. And its quality is evident from the start. For example a cold antipasto was presented not just with slices of Italian deli meats but with prosciutto and chunks of crumbly, pungent provolone (not the rubbery stuff you get in your local supermarket). Under the meats and cheese, eggplant caponata and roasted peppers added flavorful, textured counterpoint. Even plain house salads were terrific, the fresh greens dressed with an unobtrusive vinaigrette. In addition the thick, comforting pasta e fagioli could mellow the most determined gangster.

Pastas, however, steal attention even from Tony Bennett, blasting from the jukebox. They vary from ziti with broccoli to linguine with white clam sauce, the latter of which many diners I know consider a benchmark for an Italian restaurant. Pellegrino's clearly passes the test, with a dozen or more tender littlenecks scattered on the top and innumerable fresh clams chopped up in the garlicky sauce. Incidentally, if you do have to take the remains to go, you should know they taste even better the next day, having marinated all night in the fridge.

If your palate runs to the slightly more exotic, listen for specials, which could include spaghetti with jumbo shrimp and arugula or linguine with whole blue crabs. The former was fabulous; the latter, though we tried to order it, was sold out. Our waitress broke the news to us gently: "You've been cured."

"We have? Of what?"

"Of crabs. We're all out."

Despite the best intentions, I can't walk away from Pellegrino's without an order of crème brûlée topped with warm, stewed strawberries. Delectable. Cannolis are just as good, with a crisp shell and a smooth, luscious filling, but I didn't care for the ricotta cheesecake with candied fruit (a personal peeve) or a flavorless rice pudding. Dessert-loving customers might be inspired to purchase a copy of Rao's Cookbook, which is proudly displayed in the eatery.

For the record, my edition of Rao's Cookbook was given to me by a family friend who happens to be a regular at Rao's. She had it signed by the author, Frankie Pellegrino, who wrote the following inscription: "Something tells me you know how to cook." And I do, though no doubt not as well as the Rao and Pellegrino families. And now, with the addition of Pellegrino's to Deerfield Beach, I don't even have to try.