Favorite Dish: Canederli at La Cucina Veneziana

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With so many restaurants in South Florida and more opening all the time, just picking where to go for dinner on a Saturday night or lunch on a Wednesday can be an overwhelming task. Sometimes, you just need a reason. This ongoing list of the favorite dishes from food writers who know the local scene will help you discover new restaurants, cafés, and eateries and maybe even a new favorite dish of your own.

La Cucina Veneziana is one of those sleeper eateries that hits you like a thunderbolt. Chef/owner Fabio Cracco is a man of boundless energy—he cooks, serves, greets, and chats with guests in a thickly-accented, lightning-fast manner that leaves many diners befuddled, trying to decipher what it was he just said about the night’s specials. Tall and fashionably slim in an impeccable chef’s coat and white-framed glasses, Cracco is unmistakably Italian — not in a Sopranos way, though. Hailing from Vicenza, a town about 35 miles west of Venice, he has a polished, northern Italian vibe. And so does his food.

The prevailing notion is that southern Italians use olive oil, while northern Italians (“You mean those Germans up north,” says an Italian-American friend) use more butter. It’s basically true. Northern Italian food is influenced heavily by its neighbors Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia. A colder climate requires heavier fare, and olives are darn hard to grow up there in the Alps. This is certainly the case of the northern Italian specialty canederli, which Cracco describes as “Venetian meatballs.” Although you won't find them on the printed menu, they're usually available if requested.

A whiff of sage and brown butter fills the air as the canederli make their way to the table. Two generously-sized balls are topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and fried sage leaves, purposely swimming in brown butter with several slices of ciabatta to mop it all up. The first forkful exposes a cheesy center (five cheeses in all, including pecorino romano, parmigiano-reggiano, and a couple of specialty cheeses rolled in sage and herbes de provence). It's studded with bits of speck (smoked, cured ham), prosciutto, mushrooms and fresh rosemary.

“Where’s the beef?” you may ask. Or ground pork or veal like a normal meatball, for that matter? How can a meatball be so light and airy, not heavy and dense? The texture is like the best Thanksgiving stuffing that ever lived, but rolled into a ball.

Then the realization comes: these meatballs are not really meatballs at all!

Canederli is the Italian term for knödel, an Austrian bread dumpling. In Italy, they’re only found in the northeast, in the regions of Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli, and the Veneto. Originally a staple of “la cucina povera,” (the cuisine of the poor), canederli utilized day-old bread, some milk and eggs, and any meat and cheese scraps that were available. Eaten by the working-class, they soon made their way to the dining tables of the rich. As Cracco says, “The story of canederli is similar to that of polenta:” hated among Italians during the rationing of the WWII era because of its ubiquity, yet becoming haute cuisine 60 years later.

The canederli are the stuff of lore for La Cucina Veneziana regulars, many of whom still believe they're eating meatballs. But it’s doubtful that anyone has yet to complain about the meatballs being not-so-meaty.

Finishing the last of the canederli and mopping up the sage-infused, nutty brown butter, you’ll forgive Cracco for duping you, too.

La Cucina Veneziana is located at 3471 N. Federal Hwy., Oakland Park. Hours are 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday. Open only to groups on Sundays. Call 954-990-5435 or visit lacucinaveneziana.net

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