Life as da Campo Osteria Todd English has to be something like a movie. The famed Boston chef and restaurateur earned his first James Beard award in 1991. Since then, it has been a blur of television spotlights, celebrity galas, and glitzy openings. Among his vast empire of 22 outposts: A branch of his original restaurant, Olives, occupies a spot in the Bellagio in Las Vegas; an eatery bears his name aboard the Queen Mary 2; and he and It-Girl Eva Longoria share the restaurant Beso in Hollywood. It has been told that English is something of a workaholic, and the fact that he's dashing and devastatingly handsome only adds to the lore.
Like any good film, English's tale has not been without drama. Lawsuits, divorce, and health code violations have followed him in recent years, culminating in the temporary closure of two of his restaurants. Yet, he has hardly slowed. In September, English opened the Libertine inside Wall Street's decadent Gild Hall Hotel, serving upscale and up-priced pub food to bailed-out brokers. Now, hardly two months later, English has struck again with da Campo Osteria.
English is no stranger to Italian dining, but his new place skips the broader Mediterranean milieu he has employed at his other restaurants for the pastoral flavors of Northern Italy. It's located in the lux il Lugano hotel on the Intracoastal side of Fort Lauderdale beach. Taking a page from the rustic osterias of Italy, which are more often bars with some food than full-on restaurants, the concept gives more time-worn dishes like wood-fired pizza, Tuscan steaks, and simple pastas an upscale twist. The restaurant's space is narrow and long, with warm wooden tables and booths stretching past a busy open kitchen — a classic English touch. While the booths are spacious, the tables are rather cramped, especially considering that most dishes come on outsized plates. Wine glasses, too, are ostentatiously large. And oddly enough, this Osteria's bar seems an afterthought, shoehorned awkwardly into a lonely corner.
Da Campo's signature gimmick is hand-pulled mozzarella ($15), an evolution of the tableside guacamole phenomenon that won't seem to die out. In this instance, instead of watching an underpaid cook smash avocadoes in a stone molcajete, you're watching an underpaid cook rough up some curd inside a bowl of murky water. I could understand the attraction if there was some entertainment value — say, if said cook was giving you an education on cheese making while he was getting all up in your dairy products. But my questions about the process, from the origin of the curd being used to the subtleties of the craft, were met with a shrug. About the only thing our mozzarella chef could tell us was that it was easy to do — he learned how in just a few hours.
Nevertheless, the end result is worth talking about. The cheese, bathed in salty, whey-filled water, is warm and clarifying, with a singular texture that's elastic without being stringy. It's sliced into segments and prepared one of a half-dozen ways: dolce gets a drizzle of honey and spiced walnuts, caprese is livened by sun-ripened tomatoes and basil, and verde e nero is partnered with olive tapenade. We had the terra, which comes paired with luscious slices of prosciutto di Parma and sweet, if not overpowering, figs. It's finished off with ribbons of olive oil and syrupy, aged balsamic vinegar that's so silky you'll want them to leave the bottle. You'll probably find yourself swiping up what's left of it with da Campo's fabulous bread. I'd like to shake the hand of the person responsible for the grissini, slender sticks of crisp dough infused with olive oil and rosemary. The muffin-shaped focaccia is equally otherworldly, as is the walnut-and-raisin-crusted variety.
Da Campo follows the recent trend in chef-first restaurants in that its menu so kindly dictates your meal path for you. In this instance, Chef suggests you order as you go, beginning with shared antipasti and working toward primi and secondi courses. After the mozzarella, we skipped the monstrous plate of salumi ($20), opting for a salad of shaved fennel, goat cheese, and olives that's crowned with supremes of ruby red grapefruit so vibrant they were almost neon ($13). Coupled with the sweet jewels of citrus, the fennel snapped to life — it's just a shame that the breezy combination was weighed down by a too-generous dousing of vinaigrette.
One snag in English's "casual ordering" process is the tiny tables. As we ordered throughout our meal, we had to contend with the bulky, copper-studded menus. And da Campo's tables were so oddly high and its chairs so short that I started to feel like I was sitting at the kid's table during Thanksgiving dinner. Add to that the clumsy shuffle of plates and silverware by the servers, the too-loud environment, and the traveling mozzarella wagon, and what's supposed to be a leisurely meal quickly turns chaotic.
In between the trapeze act of balancing menus and small plates, it became clear da Campo is at its best when it keeps it simple. Case in point: the fleshy white anchovy filets served with olive oil crostini and vibrant, fire roasted red peppers ($11). Looking at the luscious ivory and cobalt skin of the anchovies, I could practically picture them fluttering about in the waters of the Adriatic where they were gathered. A similar thing happens with a simple salad of raw, sliced cremini mushrooms and celery leaf ($12), though it could've used a slight jolt of tartness to brighten it up.
Good pizza is something that's easier to come by in South Florida, thanks to the spread of coal-fired joints cooking their crusts thinner and more thoroughly. So I was a little disappointed by our primi of wood-fired broccoli rabe, ricotta, and sausage pizza ($13), which was certainly thin enough but was so burnt that the whole thing became a bitter mess. No thanks to the broccoli rabe either, which was blasted to complete nothingness — its tiny flecks of green almost indistinguishable next to the bold sausage. The quattro formaggio or fig and prosciutto pies might fare better, as long as the delicate line between charred and burnt is better towed.
By now we had finished with our antipasti and primi and I'd drained an $11 glass of Capezzana "Barco Reale" (just one of the varietals of Italian wines served by the glass). We would probably have been content to stop, but if we had, we would've missed out on the superb filet mignon ($30). The mid-sized medallion of beef comes paired with a veritable grab bag of "steak-and" combos: quartered wild mushrooms lightly draped in a rich Marsala sauce, creamy Gorgonzola cheese, and a mash of starchy celery root that had the satisfying, grainy texture of polenta. A little standard, yes, but forgivable when a dish is this perfectly seasoned and cooked.
Another secondi we tried was a Milano pork chop ($36) pounded flat with bone intact, coated with a crunchy crust of bread sticks, and served with an olive and caper tapenade. The tender chop was as good as you might expect a Milano preparation to be, though in place of the tapenade I'd have preferred something wetter to cut through the fried flavor. Yellowtail snapper Marsala ($32) was another similar dish in that it was a ubiquitous style done well. The sauce was never too sweet, nor did it quash the fish's oceanic flavor or crispy, crosshatched skin.
After the meal, I was left with plenty of nagging questions that never seemed to get answered. Like, "Why can't the wait staff tell me a single thing about the menu without running back to the kitchen?" Or better yet, "Does hand-pulling mozzarella tableside really make it taste better?" And though most of what's served at da Campo is cooked competently, you also have to question whether it's reasonable to charge nearly $40 for entrees that can be done just as well at the corner bistro for a fraction of the cost.
All these little snippets burrow into your brain, conspiring to form one clear message: What's holding da Campo back is the details. Maybe it sounds like nitpicking to complain that the manager never came by our table once despite lingering at others all night. Or that none of the staff bothered to address us as we walked out the door. Or no one we asked seemed to know the executive chef's full name (it's Seth High, a guy who's previously cooked for English at three other restaurants). But English is a veteran restaurateur — shouldn't someone with his skill know how to iron out the most basic of kinks in food and service? If not him then who? Someone has to catch things like the abysmal honey and ricotta doughnuts ($9), looking and tasting as if they'd been eaten before.
If da Campo Osteria itself were a movie, it would be a remake of one of those classic Hollywood capers: a slightly shallow homage packed with just enough familiar faces and whodunits to keep you preoccupied until the credits roll.