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Restaurant Reviews

Bread Winner

A commercial on Comedy Central advertising The Daily Show gets me every time. The Daily Show, for those who haven't watched it, is a no-holds-barred spoof of a news broadcast, and the commercial is just as snide as the show itself. The spot features a newsroom where everyone chases down stories and passes along "vital" information by doing nothing more than wheeling themselves around on chairs. In other words they never get off their rear ends.

The Daily Show's producers could have filmed the commercial at Tuscan Today Trattoria and without the wheels. The tile floor in the contemporary Italian restaurant, located on North Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, is so slippery that the wooden chairs -- painted in greens, reds, and blues -- skitter and skate with the slightest provocation. Evidently the guy who installed the floor was supposed to come back and sand it down, but he never did. Or so a server told us. Whatever the reason for the ice-rink-like conditions, the restaurant has a lawsuit waiting to happen on its hands.

If you're worried about falling, ask to sit in the raised portion of the dining room, where the dark wood floor, although polished, isn't quite as dangerous to the terminally clumsy (a category in which I include myself). Sitting there also affords you a better view of the open kitchen, which lines one side of this long, narrow eatery. For connoisseurs of kitchen appliances, the domed oven is of particular interest. Made of stones from the Tuscan countryside, the wood-burning oven (the restaurant uses black oak exclusively) reaches temperatures of up to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. The high heat allows meats and fish to retain their natural moisture while cooking quickly on the outside.

Even if you're not interested in ovens, this one has an interesting history. It actually delayed the opening of TTT, formerly the site of Bagelmania, by about two months. Sculpted by a Tuscan family for proprietor Ron Morrison -- who also owns Sage, Evangeline, and Reed's River House -- the custom-made oven was shipped from San Francisco to South Florida on time. But the guys who delivered it used a forklift that was too small. So when they attempted to move the oven, "it crashed," manager Eden Skultety says, succinctly. So the Valoriana family made another oven, and the restaurant's opening was switched from June to mid-August.

In addition to ovens, the dishes that come out of them must be handled with care. But a couple of items we sampled were unappealingly dry. The entrée pollo al rosmarino comprises chicken on the bone that has been marinated in rosemary, lemon juice, and olive oil. While the poultry in our dish was fragrant enough and presented in a terra-cotta roasting dish, the marinade did nothing to keep the meat moist. Likewise a T-bone steak was tough and chewy, not supple and juicy, as it should have been. The highlight of both dishes was the rosemary roasted potatoes that accompanied them.

But the oven -- or the kitchen staff handling the oven -- did a better job with another main course. Although legumi del mercato is listed under "pastas" on the menu, it's actually a casserole dish stuffed with fresh vegetables. Eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, portobello mushroom caps, radicchio, leeks, and yellow bell peppers were dabbed with olive oil and rosemary (a grossly overused herb in this restaurant), then roasted. Sprinkled with some rock salt and fresh-cracked pepper, this was a delightful vegetarian dish that didn't rely on starch as a filler. We also tried the salmon, which had been marinated in white wine. I'd suggest that, if you're going to order fish, request it rare so that you know it will arrive juicy.

For most folks an Italian meal isn't complete without some sort of pasta. The spinach gnocchi, topped with a Gorgonzola cream sauce and a dash of Parmigiano-Reggiano, was rich and satisfying. Orzo, or rice-shape pasta, on the other hand, was bland despite the additions of pancetta (Italian bacon), caramelized onions, and green peas. I should have taken the waiter's shrug seriously when I asked him about the dish. "You'll like it if you like orzo," he said. "Some people don't." The most intriguing pasta dish, spaghetti seafood cartoccio, was cooked in an untraditional manner. The spaghetti, along with fresh mussels and shrimp and a diced-tomato sauce, was wrapped in parchment paper and steamed in the oven. The dish was delicious.

When you're talking Tuscany, though, you don't have to depend on pastas for starch. This region of Italy is just as well-known for its breads, and TTT makes ample use of a round flatbread, using it as a base for three pizzas and as a complimentary starter, for which sections of the bread are toasted and smeared with garlicky butter. As pizza the bread is grilled and smothered with basil pesto, asparagus, mozzarella, and toasted pine nuts. Finicky pizza lovers may turn up their noses at TTT pizza because the crust is soft, but we were pleased by the combination of flavors.

Two other menu items, both starters, featured thicker bread with a firmer crumb. The panzanella salad offered chunks of the loaf mixed with chopped tomatoes, black olives, and anchovies -- all of it assembled over a bed of field greens. Unfortunately the olives and anchovies didn't offer much pungency, and there wasn't enough oil on the bread. The whole thing lacked pizzazz. On the other hand, the same bread is cut into rounds and also served as bruschetta. You can order the common variety, topped with chopped tomatoes and basil, but I recommend delving into deeper, muskier flavors with the chicken liver bruschetta, which was garnished with anchovies and capers, or the white-bean-and-shrimp blend, which was tossed with chopped tomatoes, black pepper, and garlic.

Beans are also a Tuscan staple, and TTT makes good use of them. La ribollita, Tuscan white-bean soup, was a little salty but otherwise a hearty treat, the beans enhanced by chopped carrots, cabbage, celery, and a hearty dose of garlic. The nutritious soup is so filling it almost suffices as a meal and allows you to follow it up with a piece of creamy cheesecake for dessert without feeling guilty.

The wine list is designed so that nonexperts can choose a good Italian red or white according to how much they want to spend; 21 vintages are priced at $18.75, and 19 cost $25.50 each. (A small "proprietor's selection" offers individually priced bottles.) Of course these relatively low prices will tempt some into overimbibing, a real danger when you consider the floor.

Service can be a little overfamiliar. During one lunch a waitress brushed her hand down my pant leg and complimented my outfit. Another waitress delivered a cappuccino we hadn't ordered. As it turns out, she'd made it for herself but had to hide it because the owner walked in just as she was preparing to drink it.

Despite some preparation flaws and an unpredictable floor, I plan to return to the restaurant without reservations -- and I do mean that literally, because the restaurant doesn't take them. In the end the only thing Tuscan Today Trattoria is truly guilty of is an awful name.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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