Restaurant Reviews

A Child Was Born in Hoboken

Screw Christmas. The hell with Hanukkah. December 12 was Frank Sinatra's birthday, and did a single city hall even bother to drag out a likeness of Ol' Blue Eyes for the occasion? Or were they too busy bickering over their stupid crèches? Half the baby boomers in America were conceived to the tune of Sinatra singing All the Way, the other half under the auspices of In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. December 12 ought to be a national holiday.

There were lots of places you could have celebrated the birth of the guy who made it A-OK for a lady to be a tramp. Or if, like me, you wanted to stretch the festivities over the full 12 days, you'd have a good chance of hearing "the voice" over the sound system at dozens of restaurants in South Florida. This is because Italian food, especially of the red sauce variety, the macaroni and baked ziti and meatball variety, the "I'll kill any man who says he can make a better bracciole than my nonna" variety, isn't hard to come by in our vicinity. If you can't find an Italian meal to suit your needs and your budget, your exact degree of pickiness over how a stuffed artichoke should taste and whether it's acceptable to dump parmigiano all over your linguine alla vongole, you haven't been trying, my friend.

As it happens, there are two Italian restaurants on Federal Highway just south of Oakland Park Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale that have somehow managed to coexist nearly side by side for well over a year now, one at 2850, the other at 2980. So far, they've refrained from open warfare, perhaps because they bear only the faintest familial resemblance to each other. Papa Pistola's is your balding, loudmouthed, tenderhearted Uncle Nuncio. Kitchenetta is his drop-dead-gorgeous daughter, Bianca, who ran away to L.A. and became a movie star. Where Pistola's is silly, Kitchenetta is sexy. Where Pistola's is cozy, Kitchenetta is frigid.

So what's your mood? Mike Boutros, who owns a couple of restaurants in Toronto, opened Papa Pistola's two years ago (it used to be called Tony Pistola's) and named it after a Mob figure in New York, Tony Guns. There is no Papa Pistola, except in the imaginations of the proprietors, but Papa has taken on a life of his own in the back pages of the menu, where you'll find his words of wisdom about all things North-American Italian. Viz: "You know you're Italian when — You netted more than 50 thousand dollars on your first communion. You are on a first name basis with at least 8 banquet hall owners. You're 6'4", can bench press 325 pounds, shave twice a day, but you still cry when your mother yells at you."

Papa Pistola's is a lot of fun. There's butcher paper on the tables, so you can spill freely. The terra-cotta-colored walls are decorated with old album covers with the original records inside: Dean Martin, Al Martino, Mantovani, Dick Contino ("The Valentino of the Accordion"). Pictures of the Rat Pack and the Sopranos. Cans of tomatoes and plastic jars full of pickled vegetables and wine bottles and Lavazza espresso cups. There's a lot of other stuff on the walls; in fact, you might say that the reigning design aesthetic here is that "More Is More."

You'll also find a bottle of wine on the table when you arrive, and if you're smart, you'll get them to open it right up. The Saturday night we dined with our party of five, the bottle was a Monte Antico, a great little Tuscan table wine that, at a discounted price of $15, filled my heart with gladness. In fact, I went home and called up Mike Boutros and asked him how come he's the only restaurateur in town to offer a decent table wine at a reasonable price. It turns out that Boutros agrees with me — he thinks wine goes really well with food, particularly a nice Sangiovese with your macaroni and tomato sauce. He thinks we should all drink it all the time, not just if we're filthy rich or temporarily flush. His vendors have told him if he keeps charging such low prices for his wine, he may find himself at the bottom of the Intracoastal wearing a pair of cement shoes. Because his competition ain't gonna like it. But he's still offering his featured wines at prices under $20. Maybe Boutros should think about getting a bodyguard.

Papa Pistola's also has some of the best service around, because Boutros hires green servers and trains them himself. He told me he wants the restaurant to feel like home, but I don't know whose home. At my home, everything was struggle and strife. Fights routinely broke out, and they often ended in bloodshed. I certainly never had a lot of people fluttering around me, anticipating my every need, like the servers do at Pistola's. One of my fellow diners had merely to hunch her shoulders slightly and gaze tragically upward at the ceiling fan before our waiter had divined that she was cold and turned the fan down. Wine glasses got promptly refilled. Who was eating what — even at our big piggy table, where we'd ordered several dozen dishes — was remembered. Special food requests were honored, and politely.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd