We all know the Italian red-sauce restaurants. Since you were old enough to twirl your own forkful of spaghetti, they've been dealing out dishes like béchamel-bound lasagna, creamy-bloated fettuccine Alfredo, or chicken and eggplant parmigiana. The only way you can overlook the often subpar ingredients is to drown your plate in a mountain of grated cheese.
Those who've been dining out in South Florida for any length of time can tell you there are better options available. Namely, they'll tell you about Casa D'Angelo, perhaps the area's best-known Tuscan-style restaurant.
In 1998, chef-owner Angelo Elia opened the first Casa D'Angelo off Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. A tall, stately, and soft-spoken man, today his reserved nature belies the successful South Florida restaurateur beneath — one who nearly single-handedly built a successful string of restaurants.
Now, with a fourth location, planned for South Miami later this year, Casa D'Angelo Fort Lauderdale — the longstanding flagship establishment — remains fresh and welcoming despite its 15-year run. More than a decade since it introduced Broward County to modern Italian dining, it's a celebratory location for special occasions and intimate dinners, born at a time when Italian restaurants came in just two flavors: trattorias with the tired roster of red-sauce selections or the fancy white-tablecloth ristorantes manned by tuxedo-clad servers.
"When I started, I wanted only to offer the type of food I was eating in Italy," says Elia, now 54.
Today, the Salerno-born chef has his sights set on establishing a second, more modern concept: Angelo Elia Pizza, Bar & Tapas, a casual line of Italian-American eateries now six locations strong with new locations planned for Doral and Aventura Park Square — with more on the way. Small and family-run — Elia's son is often spotted at the Fort Lauderdale outpost — each Angelo Elia restaurant is assiduously local and comparably inexpensive yet still features exceptional ingredients served by authentic Italians (who don't have to wear tuxedos to get the point across).
Here, patrons of all ages, states of attire, and income levels can dine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a chic, modern space. It's a welcome addition for the casual crowd, offering more relaxed environment over Casa D'Angelo.
You'll feel more at home, but the service and food is no less impressive. Servers have a fluid professionalism that can be hard to find in such casual settings elsewhere. The same goes for the Angelo Elia restaurants in Delray Beach, Weston, and Coral Springs; consistency and dependability are the chef-owner's lifeblood.
"The recipe for my success is in my approach," says Elia. "I'm never satisfied. I always strive to be better — the best."
As with Casa D'Angelo, it seems the intent of every dish is to propel you to the streets of Italy, but here with a gentler hand and for less money. In the Fort Lauderdale kitchen, the Angelo Elia executive chef, Giovanni Spasoto, uses the same simple, high-quality ingredients that Elia does at Casa D'Angelo and cooks with the confidence born of being handpicked by Elia. You can find each restaurant's dedicated chef behind the counter day or night, overseeing the cooks who work the wood-burning oven or those preparing salads and pasta à la minute.
Despite its lower price point, the restaurant isn't afraid to share a taste of what's to come, starting with a complimentary plate of rosemary- and herb-flecked foccacia bread, fresh from the pizza oven, steam rising from its center as you rip it into bite-sized pieces. From there, dip each doughy, flaky tuft into the house hot oil the color of a ripe blood orange; it lends a touch of heat and the smooth, mild taste of a good olive oil.
The menu opens with more than a dozen tapas that can also be ordered as appetizers. Priced $12 to $16 each, they include shareable portions of burrata and Parma prosciutto beneath a viscid fig balsamic reduction or hearty arancini saffron rice balls doused in a meat-speckled ragout with green peas and mozzarella.
The veal meatballs, two per order, aren't your average balls of beef and veal. Instead, the tender white meat yields to the fork remarkably well, releasing a hot puff of steam with the first cut. Resting in a shallow puddle of onion-sweet
Pizza, 16 selections in all, are among the most popular dishes, baked Neapolitan style in a wood-fired oven that's as hot as a blacksmith's forge, an interior that glows molten-metal red. The pies blister and bubble in that heat, done and served in less than five minutes. Of the usual takes, you'll find the eponymous Elia pie, a marriage of rich
Specials are offered daily. One day, it's a half-roasted chicken, the meat succulent and juicy, served with roasted hunks of vegetable. Another day, it's a fresh-catch snapper fried up in a zesty piccata sauce with capers and brightened with fresh parsley.
Dessert is essential here, either a glass of wine from Elia's Jankara Winery from Sardinia, Italy, or one of the restaurant's homemade and fresh-baked delicacies. The only things not made in-house are the cannoli shells, says
But it's the Nutella stromboli, Spasoto's creation, that begs a final order: a calzone bread shell baked with Nutella filling in place of meat and cheese. It comes out of the pizza oven hot and steaming, its hazelnut interior oozing from any open crevice. It's topped with powdered sugar and a few scoops of gelato, an indulgent end to any meal.
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"I always knew what I wanted to do," says Elia. "I wanted to bring the best to Fort Lauderdale."
Angelo Elia Pizza, Bar & Tapas
4215 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Call 954-561-7300, or visit angeloeliapizza.com.
Veal meatballs, $12
Elia pizza, $17
Nutella stromboli, $10