Restaurant Reviews

Canale Brings Fresh Italian Fare to the Venice of Florida

It's a stark contrast to its desolate surrounds of Fort Lauderdale's once lively Riverfront plaza.

At Canale, white-clad servers buzz among pristine tables topped with gently draping ivory cloths and secluded seating areas of contemporary dark wicker outdoor couches with bright-orange cushions. The inviting patio overlooks passing yachts moving up and down the New River.

After just a few minutes here, it's easy to surmise how Fort Lauderdale got its nickname — "Venice of America."

Although it's not specifically Venetian, Canale offers high-end cuisine based on the fare one would find in greater Italy; it's lighter and brighter than most Apennines-inspired cuisine.

Available for lunch, pizzas feature traditional toppings like authentic margherita and the prosciutto e rucola with tomato sauce, mozzarella, arugula, and prosciutto di parma.

While not ubiquitous as in most American-Italian restaurants, some variations of red sauce are on the menu.

The rigatoni matriciana is composed of toothsome pasta in a light tomato-based sauce brightened with sweet red onion, piquant pepperoncini, and crisp guanciale (an Italian cured pork similar to pancetta). Spaghetti al chitarra combines homemade pasta in a lamb ragu with peas.

Owned by Franco Agostino, a Genoa native who moved to Toronto at age 10, the restaurant aims to serve straightforward Italian fare with high-quality ingredients. "Simple food is where it's at," says Agostino. "But the problem is it's difficult to make simple food. We're not here to reinvent the wheel."

To that end, a frequent special, the veal piccata, combines the buttery delicate meat with an uncomplicated lemon, capers, and white wine sauce. It's clean yet complex with a tender milky texture, strong citrus notes, and vivid pops of brine. Carpaccio is presented with paper-thin strips of deep-pink marbled beef drizzled with creamy and tangy Cirpriani dressing encircling a mound of peppery arugula. It's topped with thin slivers of Parmesan cheese.

Items such as these intermingle classic dishes and seasoning in a contemporary context.

"I saw where American Italian was and took it back to the originals," says Agostino.

Octopus (which has become omnipresent in the South Florida restaurant scene) is roasted and served atop a cold potato and olive salad. Tossed in a bright and fruity tangerine vinaigrette, it's vibrant and refreshing, completely dissimilar to most variations of the popular protein.

Seafood, like the octopus, is one of the ingredients that excites Agostino the most about this region — not a surprise, coming from landlocked Toronto.

"We have wonderful things coming out of the water here," says Agostino. "I can make a shrimp carpaccio with live shrimp. I can get it straight from the Carolinas within a day."

As he moves forward, Agostino plans to introduce a larger selection of fresh fish and sea creatures. He's working on a raw bar and crudo menu with items such as oysters with pink grapefruit dressing; ceviche; and ocean trout with ginger, jalapeño, and coriander.

Although he's aware his is not what most South Floridians expect in terms of Italian cuisine, his goal is to introduce locals to the kind of food on which he was raised. Throughout his childhood, Agostino's mother would send him to spend summers with his grandparents in the Old Country; he fondly reminisces about sharing meals with his grandfather on the family's land. His strongest memory is of eating a salad with him under one of the fruit trees. With lemons, oranges, and baked black olives, it was not your typical kid-friendly dish.

"I remember that salad like it was yesterday," says Agostino. "I can still taste the smokiness of the black olives with the citrus and the olive oil, lemon, and orange dressing. It was a different world." He'd like to introduce a variation of that dish as a special at some point.

Agostino may be starting from scratch in South Florida, but he has ample experience in the world of restaurants. He started as a dishwasher in the Four Seasons Toronto in 1970 and worked his way to being a well-known restaurateur in his hometown, with nine concepts throughout the city.

On his last project, he served as owner/operator of Stelle Beach Bar + Grill at the Gansevoort Turks and Caicos.

After taking some time off from hospitality to study greenhouses in Essex County, Ontario, he decided to pack up his life and relocate to Fort Lauderdale. He's well aware of the challenges the location presents — Riverfront is mostly a ghost town at this point — but with South Florida's growing economy, his unique cuisine, and the international vibe of the city, Agostino feels strongly that the restaurant is going to succeed.

"I just think there's a spot for me here," he says. "It may be a small percentage of the clientele here; I'll take them."

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Sara Ventiera