The big man sat at a table with an older woman who was twirling pasta around a spoon. He looked up, a spitting image of gangster actor Vincent Pastore, a Rodney Dangerfield smile creeping across his face. "Hey," he said, letting the vowels sing out. "How you doin?"
This is Ernie of Ernie's Italian Chophouse, a restaurant that revolves as much around its restaurateur's likable personality as the excellent food from its kitchen. At his 6-month-old place, Ernie is the modern-day version of that maître d' who knows every customer's name and acts as if every diner has done his family an honor. Ernie owned a couple of nightclubs before opening this, his first restaurant, in an otherwise soulless Lighthouse Point strip mall. He picked the location because there was no family-style Italian restaurant around his nearby Pompano Beach home. The interior is simple: a drop ceiling, gray walls, black and white tablecloths, and a forest pattern on the windows to keep the light forever dim.
The meal started with ciabatta bread and house-marinated olives soaked in lemon and thyme just long enough to take on a fresh, woody flavor. Ernie, meanwhile, was up and moving, checking plates passed through a window cut into the kitchen. All but one at our table of five ordered from the prix fixe summer menu — three courses for $36. Our appetizers apparently passed muster with Ernie, so a trio of waiters placed them in front of us at once.
The most aromatic was the clams, baked in the shells with a crust of garlicky breadcrumbs and a sauce of lemon juice, white wine, shallots, and clam juice that tasted of the sea. They're indicative of a lot of Ernie's dishes, made with few ingredients, meant to highlight the protein, and just slight tweaks on old Italian standards that seem both too simple for these high prices but also tasty enough to impress.
The beet salad looked as bright as it tasted, with paper-thin slices of sweet beets covered in arugula and shaved leeks, all dressed in a tangy vinaigrette in just the right proportion to bring out the vegetables' freshness.
The caprese salad, by contrast, didn't look like much: two slices each of tomato and mozzarella, a couple of basil leaves, and olive oil. The tomatoes even appeared a bit underripe, the color almost more pink than deep red. But from the first nibble, they tasted of the soil they had grown in, and the mozzarella was airy, salty, and milky.
Ernie says the mozzarella defines his restaurant's concept. Growing up in Brooklyn, his grandmother, who was from Naples, used to cook for the family on Sundays, making everything from braciole to veal cutlets from scratch. So the mozzarella is pulled every morning in a kitchen that's hidden from the dining room, except for the pass-through Ernie constantly mans.
"A lot of people have six types of fish on the menu," said Ernie, who's 54 years old. His thick New York accent has stuck with him even after 26 years in Florida. "How am I supposed to have six on the menu and make sure they're fresh? I put fish on the menu only if I know they're good."
His idea here was to start with the dishes Grandma made and give them a new take, with a menu executed by chef Gary Wood. Wood was a steal, having cooked at the likes of 32 East in Delray and Max's Grille in Boca. And his skill is evident in the ravioli. The dish features four squid-ink ravioli floating in an orange-scented sauce of white wine and shallots. The earthiness of the pasta was complemented by sweet rock shrimp, and the simple but balanced sauce defines Wood's dishes.
Despite that creative talent, there are misses, like the red snapper. "I'm actually interested in what you think of this fish," Ernie said ominously as he passed me a piece on a bread plate. The fish was drowned in an overkill of flavors, including olives, a strong oniony sauce, and orange slices.
Ernie says he serves serious meat at his restaurant in recognition of a Brooklyn landmark, Peter Luger Steak House, which was just a few doors down from his family's construction business. The 50-ounce porterhouse on Ernie's menu took inspiration from that memory, and it's a dish Ernie encourages people to split, maybe even three ways.
The porterhouse, understandably, isn't included in the prix fixe menu, so I chose the skirt steak, which came sliced and fanned across the plate. It was filet-tender, with just salt and pepper to bring out the beef. A side salad of greens, tomatoes, blue cheese, and potatoes is a gutsy move — most steak eaters expect a pile of potatoes on the side — but it lightened the otherwise rich meat.
Ernie stopped by our table just after we had taken our first bites of dessert. My cannoli was stuffed with filling both light and rich, the shell crackling with every bite. I asked if it was made in the kitchen, because just about everyone gets his cannoli from someone else.
"We make everything in-house," he said, sweeping a hand in front of him. "The mozzarella, the meatballs, the cannolis — we make everything right here."
Ernie went back to check on dishes coming out of the kitchen as one of my companions began tackling a mountain of bread pudding. It tasted of cream, butter, and vanilla and stayed crispy on the top, with a caramel sauce that was slightly underdone below. We made a breakfast — for two — out of the seconds.
As we made our way out, Ernie met us at the door, thanking us for coming in and telling us he hopes we return. Indeed, it would be worth another visit simply for the mozzarella or the skirt steak; but the real reason we'll be back is Ernie, the man who just wanted a neighborhood Italian joint near his house.