As a ten-year resident of South Florida, I've noticed something — hardly anyone is from here. Also: We like to argue that where we came from is the best place on Earth. Or at least that it has the best food.
Surely you've witnessed plenty of harebrained arguments about whose native town has the best barbecue or how so-and-so's neighborhood deli makes the best — no really, the best — meatballs. Engaging in these silly gastronomic debates can bring out our hometown pride. Food from home — we love it; we miss it — can help create a sense of belonging in a very transient South Florida.
After entering Cafe La Buca — a Pompano Beach establishment tucked beside a barber shop in an unpretentious strip mall — I fondly thought of my grandmother. Like Grandma's house, the restaurant's walls are covered with framed pictures, its shelves are adorned with trinkets, and linen curtains line the windows. The six-table dining area (hey, that's up from four tables last year) feels like a home kitchen — great warmth, intoxicating aromas permeating the air, and friendly gatherings taking shape. Forget the romantic candlelight or fancy tablescapes; Cafe La Buca is just like my grandmother's kitchen, except here I don't get lectures on what I should be doing with my life.
As soon as my dinner companion and I stepped through the door, we were greeted by the gregarious Napolitan proprietors, the Spina family. Owner and chef Marco, accompanied by his mother, Maria; father, Giorgio; and sister Simona, relocated from Naples to America nine years ago. Just 15 months ago, Cafe La Buca was born. Its menu (which changes often) features cuisine familiar to their native Italy: pizzas prepared in the wood-fire oven, homemade pastas, fresh seafood, grilled steak, and roasted lamb.
On my initial visit, my friend and I were the first guests to arrive. We were awkwardly seated in the only spot set for two — right smack in the middle of the dining room surrounded by five other tables. Within moments, we heard a friendly Italian voice offering to open the bottle of wine we brought (there is no corkage fee, and because they don't have a beer and wine license, they reminded us to bring wine when we'd made reservations). Maria brought back the opened bottle along with two wineglasses. After a few sips of wine, the discomfort of sitting at our oddly placed table began to fade. From the warm hospitality to the unassuming surroundings, I felt nostalgic and at ease — signs that I was about to experience something special.
Reservations are a must at Cafe La Buca, and the small Italian trattoria fills up quickly. Soon after our arrival, other guests began to appear. Most seemed to be returning from a previous visit, all with bottles of vino in hand. Everyone was greeted with a boisterous hello and/or a hug — the scene was much more like a family party than a restaurant.
As the party next to ours (their table was also decorated with a red and white plastic tablecloth) got settled just a few feet away, it was clear they knew the chef well when one of them asked "What are we having tonight, Marco?" and he cheerfully described several dinner options but then, without waiting for them to decide, declared which ones he would make.
One thing missing at Cafe La Buca: menus. The food options were rattled off by Maria (but not the prices). Per her suggestion, we started with vegetable antipasti — four small servings including earthy mushrooms, balsamic marinated zucchini, roasted red peppers, and deliciously salty artichoke — all slow-roasted and marinated in garlic-olive oil ($13). We were also given a serving of roasted portobello mushroom topped with sautéed spinach, tomato, and fresh mozzarella and drizzled with a balsamic reduction ($6). The modestly portioned appetizers were accompanied by a basket of homemade rolls made of pizza dough, warm and fresh from the blazing wood-fire oven.
We were barely finished with our first course before my friend, who is from a small island off the coast of Italy, began to reminisce about old family recipes that he longed for. "I have to bring my sister here when she comes to visit. She'll think I'm cool for knowing about a place like this," he said, as he also typed a text message to his Italian boss recommending he try the eatery. It doesn't take long for Cafe La Buca to make an impression.
Soon after the first course, Maria returned from behind a countertop to offer choices of pasta. Our selections resulted in traditional lasagna and gnocchi (both $14). The lasagna — with towering layers of fresh sheets of pasta, meat sauce, sweet ricotta cheese, and melted mozzarella — were topped with chiffonades of fresh basil. Also, a cassoulet dish of gnocchi arrived steaming from the oven, crusted with melted mozzarella and marinara sauce bubbling from the sides. The pasta portions are large enough for sharing, yet the two of us threw portion control to the wind and consumed every bite.
Despite being past the point of reasonable satiety, we couldn't resist the salt-baked branzino, a Mediterranean-style sea bass ($38). The whole fish was baked in the wood-fire oven, mostly deboned, and served alongside a mixed green salad. Unfortunately, the delicate flavor of the sea bass was lost in a pool of butter and too much rock salt. Also, almost every bite contained small bones that were left in the flesh of the fish, leaving me to pull them out of my mouth rather ungracefully.
Still, that was a small glitch in an otherwise lovely evening, and our second visit was equally satisfying, partly because we felt better knowing what to expect. We were seated in a more comfortable table, nestled in a corner. This time, we opted for different starters — antipasti of lightly fried strips of zucchini, zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella, and salty ricotta salata ($12.99). Proving the adage that adding bacon can make anything delicious, I was smitten by our second appetizer of tender-roasted Brussels sprouts topped with salty pancetta ($4.50).
Once again, the pasta was the highlight. We shared pappardelle Bolognese, a carbohydrate celebration of fresh pasta ribbons gently tossed with meaty tomato sauce. Any acidity of the tomato sauce was balanced with sweet bits of carrot, rounding out the flavors of the dish.
As our entrées were being prepared, intoxicating scents of rosemary and garlic came wafting from the kitchen just a few feet away. We could watch as the chef placed cast iron skillets into the bright flames of the oven. Despite the promising aromas, the main course of roasted rosemary-lamb chops ($28) and a well-seasoned grilled rib-eye steak ($30) arrived a little overcooked. Once again, I was the picture of inelegance, trying desperately not to look like a grizzly carnivore as I gnawed on the tough meat.
For dessert, there is traditional tiramisu, a miniature cannoli stuffed with white and milk chocolate, or one of Marco's self-proclaimed inventions. The birth of one of his rogue sweets was an attempt to accommodate a customer's request for something sugary. He designed a pastry prepared with pizza dough, mascarpone cheese, and Grand Marnier, topped with strawberries. After one taste of the creation, the diner extolled, "Oh man! This is illegal!" That became the slogan printed on the backs of the family's uniforms.
When the check came, I was a little surprised — I'd had a ballpark idea of how much dinner would cost, and it was slightly more: about a hundred bucks for the two of us. But I considered the price fair pay for the intimate experience — and certainly, none of the regulars seemed to have sticker shock.
With its few execution snafus easy to overlook, Cafe La Buca could undoubtedly expand and still draw droves of eager customers. There would be lines out the door. But the Spinas are satisfied with the current pace of business. "We serve 800 people a week, easy," Marco says. "Imagine if it were busier. We like it quiet."
We did too. And that's they key to the café's charm: It's a humble trattoria where you can celebrate good food and be treated like you're home — even if you're far from it.