I'm rooting for this guy. Not only because he is in a forgotten strip mall in Coral Springs, hugged by a generic restaurant chain and a discount movie theatre. Or because the neon sign above his restaurant says "Pizzeria" larger than anything else, giving away little of the gem that rests inside. But because this guy, Marco Baruffaldi, an affable, hardworking, talented chef is, as they say in Italian, un vero affare: the real deal.
Baruffaldi hails from Cento, a town among the cities of Ferrara, Bologna, and Modena in the Emilia Romagna region. This area is home to some of Italy's signature delicacies, like Parmigiano-Reggiano
, mortadella, and balsamic vinegar, and Baruffaldi pays tribute to them all in his cooking — and he doesn't stop there.
"I would like to bring [Italian] popular food here at a reasonable price," he says.
He learned to cook by watching both his nonnas, Maria and Bruna, at work in the kitchen. At 14, he became a dishwasher in Cento, then headed to the Culinary Institute in Ferrara. He began at four-star hotel restaurants in Bologna, working his way up until he opened his own restaurant in his hometown.
"It's very difficult," Baruffaldi says. He left after running his place there for three years. "In Italy, there are lots of taxes."
A consulting job landed him in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and eventually he made his way to South Florida.
Il Faro was a strategic decision. Baruffaldi realized there were few Italians in Coral Springs and there was good growth potential for an authentic Italian restaurant. Il Faro, which translates to "The Lighthouse," was the spot's original name, and Baruffaldi opted to keep it.
"Cento is a lighthouse of my cooking. It applies to the story of my food," he explains.
Baruffaldi opts out of a formal menu and instead presents diners with a clipboard with seven pages attached, beginning with a heartfelt welcome to Il Faro, promising to "bring to your table an authentic slice of Italy."
To begin, diners are treated to a starter of freshly baked focaccia topped with tomatoes, baby mozzarella, mortadella, and balsamic glaze alongside the standard bread basket. Emerald-colored extra virgin olive oil arrives for dipping.
An expansive chalkboard wall with the day's specials frames the pizza oven station: octopus salad with sun-dried tomatoes, potatoes, capers, and olives and short-rib ravioli with mushrooms, truffle oil, and cream. The salad is served warm, allowing the acidity of the capers to brighten the dish while exalting the tenderness of the octopus with the velvety potatoes. The short-rib ravioli is generously filled squares of rich, braised beef sealed inside homemade ravioli ("made with Italian flour," Baruffaldi informs) and served over a creamy bed covered by sautéed slices of mushrooms and drizzled with truffle oil. The dish is presented in its own skillet. A jam jar filled with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano is brought to the table, leaving the diner the opportunity to sprinkle to his or her heart's content.
The wine list is a well-thought-out selection of affordable Italian vintages. I go for a red from Tuscany and a Sicilian white, which is elegantly balanced with hints of citrus, melon, and delicate flowers.
Baruffaldi arrives next with one of his favorites pizzas, the Antica Modena: fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pancetta (Italian bacon made out of pork belly), and balsamic vinegar glaze. It is thin, crispy, and light. The pancetta melts in your mouth.
The desserts here are properly traditional and utterly Italian — and with the dessert sampler, you don't have to choose. Items include a tempting sliver of ricotta cheesecake served with a homemade strawberry sauce, a generous spoonful of mascarpone cream topped with chocolate shavings, and crumbled amaretto cookies as well as a tiramisu that is a perfect balance of cream, cocoa, and espresso-soaked lady fingers. Finish up with panna cotta and the crema catalana, which is actually a Spanish take on a French dessert. Don't ask how it ended up on the menu of an Italian man's restaurant in Coral Springs — just be glad that it did. The custard base is luxuriously rich, the caramelized sugar perfectly golden, offering an unforgettable crunch and an extraordinary end to a delightful meal.
Baruffaldi offers guests another taste of Italy to take home. In one corner of the restaurant, a small blackboard announcing La Bottega Del Faro hangs over cans of Italian San Marzano tomatoes, Carciofi alla Romana (marinated artichokes "Roman style"), and L'ampascioni, wild onions from Puglia in extra virgin olive oil. There are other things for sale as well, including Italian cheeses and cold cuts — provolone, burrata, and parma salami, to name a few.
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"Everything is from Italy," Baruffaldi says. His wife, Ilenia, is a graphic designer who still lives in Cento. "I go when I can, but it is hard now with the restaurant. She manages to come two to three times a year." He is gleefully optimistic though; this is what he loves, and he is good at it.
"I love to choose hard. I'm not happy if I don't choose the hard way."
Il Faro Pizzeria and Restaurant. 760 Riverside Dr., Coral Springs; Facebook.
Alona Abbady Martinez lives in Plantation. She writes about food and family on her blog, Culinary Compulsion, and is currently working on her book, My Culinary Compulsion, a global food memoir with recipes. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.