From stage right, manager Burak Isman saunters over to our table to guide Rebecca through a book-length list of Italian wines. She and her friend Matt join Harmony and me for dinner on the back porch of D'Angelo Trattoria, tables nestled closely. Tucked at the base of Atlantic and Seventh avenues, the restaurant resides on coveted Delray Beach real estate just over the causeway to the ocean.
"This place is like an old house," says Matt, who claims to have eaten in nearly every Italian restaurant in the area. Inside, white, textured walls and a demure bar define this setting. Low ceilings and hardwood floors frame the space for a Roman trattoria in a 1920s Florida cottage. For a tall person, it may feel like a doll's house.
Isman helped sommelier Koen Kersemans build the award-winning, 20,000-bottle collection at Casa D'Angelo, Angelo Elia's fine-dining mecca in Fort Lauderdale, one of five D'Angelo restaurants. People drink wine here at D'Angelo Trattoria, Isman explains, but the orders aren't as prolific as they are at Casa D'Angelo. I'm delighted to listen to Isman, since it is rare that staff is so eloquent in shop talk.
As he drops descriptions of wines racy or refined, I land on a cocktail from the short list: my favorite, Aperol, is served with Prosecco as a spritzer. Bitter and refreshing, Aperol is an aperitif that's a cousin to Campari, with a lower alcohol content. Rebecca and Harmony settle on a crisp, floral white from the Piedmont region, while Matt goes for a Super Tuscan.
At Casa D'Angelo, the wine is as important as the food. Elia says it's a regular thing for a table to order an $800 bottle. At this newest restaurant, Elia's team has assembled an Italian-dominated wine list with an impressive selection of bold reds, like the Super Tuscan that Matt has ordered. Wine consumption here, Isman says, is less status-oriented and more accessible. By-the-glass options run $10 to $15.
From the kitchen to the patio, a parade of servers in white shirts and black aprons delivers a selection of starters. Spring favas fan a plate centered with fresh burrata on a bed of watercress. Beans mark the arrival of the season in spring green. Their sweetness brightens creamy mozzarella named for the Italian word for butter. On another dish, supple calamari pairs with lightly breaded Roman artichokes. As fresh as the calamari may be, we prefer the latter, an Italian version of a fried pickle.
With napkins folded to protect hands from hot plates, servers deliver a second round of dishes to our table on the patio. An eggplant stack is centered on a plate, lightly breaded, with a hint of egg. We savor the sauce, and rightly so. Elia assembles several in-house with the freshest ingredients. Without meat, one sauce finishes within a half hour on the stove. The other sauces, longer. Only staff members who have worked for him for years know how to make sauces he learned as a child growing up outside of Naples, Italy. Meatballs too are a home recipe of pork, veal, and beef: a bit dry tonight, though an appropriate vehicle to mop up this terrific gravy.
As that gravy is for Italian cooking, D'Angelo Trattoria is the mark of a restaurateur in his prime. If Elia's ambition is to shape the South Florida dining scene, he's doing it. And I'm pleased to reap the benefits. In addition to his five restaurants, Elia is planning to add a bakery and gelateria to the trattoria space within six months. Within a year, two more restaurants will debut. A staff he can trust and his enduring passion have spawned the growth of this mini-empire, no small feat for a man who shies away from the likes of Top Chef and national food TV. "I still work the line," he says when I spoke to him by phone. "I love it."
Harmony's appetite wanes as we decide on entrées. She opts for a demure bowl of shellfish in beautiful broth. Fat mussels and delicate littlenecks couple in a bowl with fresh herbs. Rebecca's salmon course is a minimalist dish: fresh and unadorned. "We're almost out," our server said as we ordered. His prompt suggested it's a sought-after dish, a healthy option on a rich menu.
Other main dishes luff. I order the paccheri Amatriciana for the guanciale, a cousin of bacon that's harder to find. Yet the wide noodle pasta is a bit gummy, less silky than I'd hoped. And the boar in the bucatini with ragu is the texture of a grandma's stew rather than succulent meat porn.
Still, the meal is as delightful as conversation. Florida stories enthrall me. Rebecca and Matt, the Floridians at the table, weave stories of the disappearing wilds of South Florida at the edge of the Everglades: as mystifying to me as a haunted house. Tables of six, four, and two create a pleasant murmur, not a din. Our table is an oasis despite the full house.
Despite our medley of a meal, I want another round of eggplant. I'm also lusting for a glass of Barolo paired with osso buco. Braised lamb shanks of veal are elevated from humble to decadent by patience and technique. And then there's the coveted marrow bone in the center. Served with a tiny spoon, a dollop on house-made bread is the stuff of fantasy. I know what to get next visit. And there will be many.