After several years of cooking for some of Miami's most well-known hotel restaurants, including Cascata Grill at Turnberry Isle and the former Solea at the W Hotel in South Beach, chef Steven Acosta has returned to Fort Lauderdale's Il Lugano Hotel to take over the kitchen at da Campo Osteria.
Since rejoining the culinary team several months ago, Acosta -- who helped to open da Campo in 2008 -- has revamped the menu, redefining pastas and meats, and introducing an abundance of fresh, new flavors.
"I've created a few new dishes, but really, I refined the entire menu," Acosta says.
Although the menu still represents northern Italian cuisine, the dishes aren't the traditional take, Acosta insists. Instead, he's given them his own twist, taking a classical French education and fusing it with the basic principles of the Latin cuisines representative of his heritage.
The new menu includes a chicken parmesan you've never seen before, and suckling pig cannelloni.
Acosta is half-Costa Rican, half-Cuban and has fond memories of his grandmother's cooking. Specifically, the traditional Costa Rican dish of arroz con pollo, or chicken with rice and beans, served with a side of potato chips. From his Cuban side, it's memories of roasting a whole pig with his father, something he does now with his three sons at his Miami home.
"It's cliche to say my love of cooking began in the kitchen with my grandmother, but really, where else could it start?" Acosta says. "I remember her telling me to always use fresh ingredients. That was my first lesson."
His grandmother would also go shopping at the local markets, buying from small vendors where produce was vibrant, flavorful and fresh. Today, Acosta takes a similar approach, buying locally -- including a whole pig from a nearby Hialeah farm -- fueling a passion for simple, high-quality ingredients that now define the new menu items he's introduced at da Campo.
"I love the simplicity of Italian food," said Acosta. "It's straightforward. You start out with good ingredients, and the dish makes itself."
Take the suckling pig confit, served at da Campo as cannelloni di maiale. Acosta uses a locally raised pig for its fresh flavor -- just the way the Italians do it. The pig is delivered whole, then brined for several hours before it is seasoned and broken down to prepare the confit. The dish marries sheep's milk ricotta and arugula poached in butter, which is rolled in sheets of housemade pasta and baked for a less-doughy bite. Its topped with a mushroom sauce made from mushrooms supplied by a specialty purveyor that works with foragers to find local, in-season picks. Right now, Acosta is using chanterelle, but that will change with the seasons as new varieties become available, he said.
Another example of the chef's appreciation for simple fare would be the roasted beet salad served with Italian robiola cheese, a dash of extra virgin olive oil, cracked sea salt and pepper ($13). There's also a new roasted artichoke and arugula salad, a dish highlighted by Acosta's own crispy artichoke heart "chips," served with toasted pine nuts and pickled red onion ($15).
You'll see the same chips served with the guance di vitello brasate, or braised veal cheeks, something you'll be hard-pressed to find on any menu in the area ($36). Acosta said he chose that cut over traditional Italian meats like osso bucco and lamb shank. To highlight the tender, buttery taste of the veal, he braises it for several hours in red wine and pairs it with oven-cured Roma tomatoes, oven roasted tri-color cauliflower and cippolini onions ($36).
Taking note of the braised short rib craze, Acosta gave the popular cut a new face, stuffing it into house-made ravioli for his ravioli di costola breve ($26). The sauce is a new take on the Italian's spicy fra diavolo, here made with fiery Calabrese peppers in place of the standard red pepper flakes and a drizzle of the short rib's red wine reduction.
Be sure to keep an eye out for a dish in the works, Acosta's own take on chicken parmesan. Rather than sauteing breaded cutlets, Acosta said he plans on using a true country-fried chicken, brined then marinated in a buttermilk bath, and finished in a cast-iron skillet. To top it off, this dish will feature a housemade burrata and a meat-based ragu made with heirloom tomatoes.
For more information on da Campo, visit the Il Lugano website, or call (954) 564-4400.