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Mamma mia, there are loads of Italian restaurants cropping up all over South Florida these days.
In the past year alone, we've seen high-profile Italian openings like Martorano's, Via Luna, and SoLita, balanced by contemporary casual places like D'Angelo and Cafe Macaluso. Some of them — such as Chris Michael's Steakhouse and Tonino Lamborghini's Caffe Corsa — have sped in and out of existence so fast that there's little more than a trail of red sauce left in their wake. If things keep up this way, the USA's trademark peninsula might just sprout a boot. Its denizens could soon be grating fresh parmigiano reggiano unilaterally on everything they consume.
As someone who makes a living trying each of these new places, I start to shudder a bit inside every time I hear about a new Italian restaurant slung up in Palm Beach or tony Boca Raton. Like, really? Do we really need another restaurant helmed by some affable, Italian-born chef who claims that his mother's supersecret meatball recipe is truly the best around?
Ah, if I could only eat my words, I'd be a very full man. After all that griping, I still resolved to cart my cantankerous behind to Caruso Ristorante, a cozy 50-seater in Boca's Royal Palm Plaza. Chef Lillo Teodosi's humble pan-Italian eatery has earned some praise for its oft-changing menu spanning all 20 regions of Italy. There must be something here, I thought, that distinguishes Caruso from the myriad other Italian restaurants new to South Florida.
I wasn't so sure of that on my first visit to Caruso, though through no fault of the food that Chef Teodosi creates. This particular affable, Italian-born chef came to Boca by way of Chicago, where he had run kitchens since arriving from Europe in 1979. His menu here is broad and full of passion. There's more imagination, more adherence to fresh ingredients and bold flavors in his complimentary antipasto platter alone than in entire menus at most of the "Italian" places currently operating in Broward or Palm Beach today. But more on that later.
No, what irked me about my first meal at Caruso was the service. We didn't get that impression from our hostess, who had enough charm and know-how to offer dark linens as opposed to the ordinary whites to those of us dressed in black. Rather it was the ensemble of waiters that attended to our table — two young gentlemen who spoke in thick accents, along with two older ones who looked like they'd seen a few shifts too many. These guys got some of the nuts and bolts right; they poured wine and packed our leftovers. But they did it in the most plodding, passionless, and terse way possible, as if our very presence were a blight upon them.
For example: Regulars at Caruso know that the daily specials Teodosi creates are often the highlight of the trip. Yet on our first visit, we were never offered a list of specials, nor were we even so much as greeted by our dour server at the start of our meal. Instead, he just stared into space as if he expected us to start belting out our orders at random. On a repeat trip, my date and I had to ask to hear those same specials, and even then, we were given the most cursory of rundowns ("Tonight we have ravioli, veal, and tuna"). That kind of service might pass muster at TGI Fridays. But it hardly does Teodosi's food justice, especially at this price point (around $50 per person, not including drinks).
Luckily, the kitchen gave us a much better impression than the staff did. I've already mentioned the antipasto platter, which comes complimentary at the start of each meal. This painting-like presentation is composed of whatever Teodosi deems fresh and flavorful. There are house-roasted red peppers, squash, and grilled zucchini. White cannelloni beans are tossed with arugula and bits of imported tuna; miniature omelets are like custardy cakes made rich with olive oil. And then, there's simplicity: a wonderfully ripe grape tomato bursting with juice, graced with the faintest drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a smattering of sea salt and cracked pepper. Or a vibrant green olive, its flesh as taut and firm as an Italian goddess'.
I could make a meal of that antipasto, it's so good. But then I'd miss out on Caruso's other offerings, like the littleneck clams and mussels ($14.50). Steeped in white wine, saffron, and guanciale, a type of unsmoked bacon made from the pig's cheeks, the broth alone is worth sopping up with a piece of the crusty Italian bread or sun-dried tomato focaccia provided. Best of all, the dish isn't too salty, like at so many other restaurants. Then again, at most Italian restaurants, I'd entirely skip something like the pepper-crusted tuna ($14.50). At Caruso, the ruby slab of fish is carved into thick, meaty chunks and paired with robust slices of fennel and arugula, the latter lightly dressed with olive oil and orange. And the portion? It's large enough to qualify as an entrée for one.
Wine is not an afterthought here either. The restaurant's sizable list is studded with value bottles and intriguing selections ranging from $30 to $100, with glasses starting as low as $7. Teodosi acts as his own wine buyer, and he does a great job. A 2004 Bonacchi Chianti Riservo we found was a steal at $38 a bottle, a smooth, juicy red full of dark ripe fruit and subtle spice. It paired perfectly with the bold flavors of fiordilatte cheese plated with mountain-cured prosciutto ($12.50). The hearty, rustic provolone borrowed sweetness from a splash of aged balsamic vinegar and more of Teodosi's house-roasted peppers. Stellar.
Sipping a glass of wine, eating fine imported cheese, it's easy to feel like things are falling into place. The restaurant itself is lovely to behold, formerly belonging to the fab Cafe Joley. When Teodosi moved in this January, he gave it a cosmetic overhaul, hanging red drapes to accent the wrought-iron chandeliers and outfitting the walls with broad mirrors framed by hand-painted Venetian tiles. If you sit inside, opt for a seat in one of the plush red booths that runs across the length of each wall. If you'd rather dine alfresco, there's patio seating too — Teodosi is in the process of adding an outside bar to complement it. Meanwhile, he uses the adjoining "Bar Rogue" space next door for private parties and overflow.
Entrées at Caruso run a wide gamut from around $18 to more than $40, that for a double-cut veal chop doused in truffle oil and porcini mushrooms. Those prices can seem either reasonable ($18.50 for pappardelle with wild salmon and dill) or a bit out of whack ($28.50 for veal saltimbocca). That's not so much due to any deficiency with the veal — it's a fine dish, featuring two tender cutlets napped in a rich sage gravy and served with creamy mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach. It's more that the pasta dishes are just so much better — and so large (a habit Teodosi says he learned while working in Chicago, a town of big eaters).
The pappardelle, for example, is a flat, broad noodle Teodosi makes in-house. In one preparation, it's graced with big hunks of moist wild salmon draped in silky tomato-cream sauce, which itself is imparted with smoked salmon. Another version ventures to Sicily, where it's paired with eggplant and swordfish ($26.50). With either preparation, you'll have enough leftovers to last you another meal. Same with a bowl of linguine al limon ($26.50), advertised as shrimp- and scallop-studded pasta with creamed leeks, mint, and lemon. My only complaint: I had a hard time detecting either mint or lemon in the rich cream sauce.
More untouchables: a simple Tuscan salad with roasted beets and the most amazing citrus-scented carrots ($9.50). Or soft and supple gnocchi made rich with Bolognese sauce ($18.50). My friend John absolutely loved the shrimp and scallop risotto ($26.50), heady with the aroma of sea and saffron. Teodosi also makes a version with farro, a hearty Italian wheat that's a little like barley. You probably won't find the Roman staple on many Italian menus down here. And that's part of what makes Caruso such a nice change of pace — it holds just enough surprises to keep from feeling familiar. In a scene inundated with Italian restaurants, that's a great thing.