In Mario Batali's newest book, Molto Gusto — a gorgeous full-color picture book that omits big protein-based main courses and features dreamy antipastos instead — there's a chapter devoted exclusively to cured Italian meats. Seeing the five types of prosciutto pictured there is so high on my food-porn scale that the pages of my copy are practically matted together like an old Playboy.
I get the same longing feeling looking at that book that I do walking past the bright display cases at D'Angelo, Chef Angelo Elia's newest restaurant in Oakland Park. When a hostess leads me toward a table in the back of the restaurant, my vision stays focused on those deli-style coolers until I'm pivoting 180 degrees like some awkward bobblehead. Inside is the mother lode: picturesque hunks of prosciutto all marbled and pink, purple-red rounds of air-cured bresaola, Milanese and Calabresian salamis each tinted the color of red wine and speckled with fat. On top of one case is a nightly special — a wrapped, stuffed pork loin cooked in D'Angelo's wood-burning oven. Later, my waitress explains that the chefs cut the loin into inch-thick slices and serve it like an appetizer with fresh focaccia bread baked in those same ovens. As she describes it, I drift off somewhere else. "Hey there, pork loin," I coo to the quivering slice of homemade charcuterie. "You had me at hello."
There's a reason cured meats and fine cheeses factor in so prominently at D'Angelo — and it's not just to attract slavering foodists like me. Elia, an Italian-born man who has spent the better part of 13 years wooing South Floridians at expensive and indulgent Casa D'Angelo, wanted the focus of his new restaurant to be less about chefy technique and more about celebrating bounty. The casual, European-style trattoria serves mostly pizza and light Italian-style antipasto such as salads, carpaccio, meatballs, seasonal vegetable tempura, and bruschetta, backing that up with a small but capable wine list of Italian imports. As in Batali's book, there are no main courses. But the inspiration came from Elia's agrarian approach to food, not some restaurant trend.
Elia says that opening this restaurant had been his goal for more than eight years. If his flagship Casa D'Angelo was a place for him to showcase the depth of Italian technique, he wanted to create a restaurant that felt more like the simple Italy he visited year after year where ingredients are at the forefront. A place where you could come and sit and pick at food as you want with friends. But it didn't come that easy. Elia researched for years, he says, tasting and learning both home and abroad. And in order for him to have the final say on every element of its design, Elia decided he would fund the project entirely on his own. "It was very difficult to open," he told New Times over the phone.
Regardless, Elia seems to have nailed the concept. The result is a bright, modern space off of Federal Highway, bathed in creamy whites and reflective mirrors, that feels like the kind of casual eatery you might walk into in Milan or Naples. Behind the long glass cases stands a modest chef's line anchored by a glowing wooden hearth that serves literally and figuratively as the heart of the restaurant.
Elia has ensured that what goes into and comes out of that oven is of the highest quality. He uses only Caputo 00 flour in his pizzas, which gives the dough a silky, luxurious texture. He tops them with San Marzano tomatoes and fine imported meats and cheeses. But most integral are Elia's pizza chefs: He handpicked three boys from Italy and set them up in houses in Fort Lauderdale for the sole purpose of crafting his pies.
And what pies they are. New Times has already bestowed the restaurant with its annual Best New Restaurant in Broward award. And since it opened in March, many of my coworkers have become D'Angelo junkies. There are those among us who, unable to return to our normal lives, have to deal with the constant pangs of addiction, our inner monologues pleading for pizzas made with creamy stracchino and speck, or figs with black pepper, or pungent taleggio with porcini mushrooms. There should be a support group for this. Luckily, the pies aren't that expensive, ranging from $9 to $14 each.
I recently took a group of friends to D'Angelo. Our party of five wanted to sit outside on D'Angelo's Euro-styled patio, a lovely tiled courtyard with a mixture of couches and tables that's separated from busy Federal Highway by a hedgerow. A bout of summer rain forced us inside, though.
We decided to embrace the leisurely, trattoria vibe by sampling widely from the menu. We ended up like children pointing at a million things we wanted to try. Which is a fine way to order. Per the Italian table theme, everything at D'Angelo comes out when it's ready. Dishes arrived staggered, which adds an air of informality. It also makes you feel like you're feasting when you're actually eating relatively lightly.
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What a feast ours was: There was lightly cooked polenta whorled with enough fontina to qualify it as a dairy product, its milky texture cut with earthy roasted mushrooms ($10). Arancini rice balls were like puffs of risotto given heft with sweet peas and a coating of panko ($8) — dipped into a bowl of lightly cooked tomato sauce, they were legendary. We couldn't pass up the salumi ($20 and up, depending on the number of selections) either, so we picked on a platter of imported speck, salami, and bresaola, plus taleggio. Meanwhile, we drank from a stunning bottle of Piedmontese Gavi from Villa Sparina ($50). It was pure bliss. You couldn't have brought us back to Earth with all the anchors in the Atlantic.
How I've longed for a restaurant like this, one where you can pick and choose from great ingredient after great ingredient, none of them marred by chefy indulgence. After all, what more could anyone hope to do with such amazing carpaccio as D'Angelo's spada ($10), hoary sheets of swordfish sliced so thin as to be sheer. Those waves are left completely unclouded by accent, aside from a glistening sheen of olive oil and a scattering of thyme. The latter braces against the cool, sweet flesh like a lost lover. Even when there's room for subjectivity in D'Angelo, it's hard to fault the process. For instance, some of us found the tempura-battered zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella ($10) to be underseasoned. But why oversalt a flavor as delicate as these green blossoms anyway?
In the end, though, not one of us could muster a complaint about anything that came out of the wood-burning oven. The warmth given up by that hearth seems to transfer the soul of those pizzamakers right into the food. A frittata served in a searing-hot iron skillet was an eggy custard of such simultaneous lightness and depth that it was like pure impossibility given form ($9). And of course, there's the pizza. After numerous visits, I keep going back to the Contadina pie ($11). It's just so perfectly balanced: the gamey sausage against grassy, intense dabs of ricotta. A coworker claims that the Angelo topped with arugula and prosciutto de parma is the best. Either way, it's all in the crust. Like good bread, that thin layer is so light and flavorful that you practically visualize golden fields of wheat as you eat it. D'Angelo's pizza is so perfectly cooked — with the faintest amount of char and exact level of doneness — that if it doesn't put the final stamp in the coal-versus-wood debate, no pie will.
But in the end, it's the Italian tradition of sampling that really grabs you at D'Angelo. The menu is so vast and varied, you could come here for weeks on end and not try it all. The portions aren't huge, and there are no main courses. And you probably won't leave with a doggy bag of goopy pasta. After my last visit, I'm still visualizing the menu like pictures out of Batali's book. It has shaped up to be one fine-looking centerfold.