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Grading Antipasti on a Curve

I'm getting bitch-slapped all over the place lately. I've gotten a slew of letters in the past couple of weeks suggesting I need to find myself another profession. I'm a mean-spirited misanthrope who wouldn't know a gourmet dinner if she fell face down in it. If I write a negative restaurant review, these letters suggest, I obviously have some personal, long-nursed grudge against the chef or owner. I've probably been slighted by, or kicked out of bed by, or been at the losing end of a fistfight with, half the cooks in town: Now, I've miraculously landed a job as a food critic! — a golden opportunity for major payback. Worse, sometimes my assessments differ drastically from my colleagues at the dailies and glossies... which only goes to show that I'm a total spoiler/clueless hack/illiterate nincompoop.

I've been writing about restaurants for New Times for a couple of years now, and it's probably time I laid my critical cards on the table. I can bluff as well as the next chick, but this time I think I've got a full house. I don't believe I'm ever dead wrong about a restaurant, and I'll stand by my assessments. Which doesn't mean you can't disagree with me. I'm sure your mommy will totally back you.

Let's do this as a case study. Let's take Flavors of Italy, an elegant, expensive, and well-established restaurant in Coral Springs with a single chef/owner, highly praised in at least one other local publication (it was deemed one of that paper's 100 Top Restaurants in South Florida last year). I've never slept or fought with Guido Barisone, and I know nothing about his history except that he's owned at least one other restaurant locally. I'm going to visit Flavors anonymously, as I always do, with my dinner tab paid by New Times.

My first principle, "It's the Food, Stupid," is one I apply consistently. The chef might be famous or unknown, a big huggie bear or a vicious bitch, a corporate drone or a lonely maverick, but nothing matters except what he or she sends out of the kitchen. Let the tablecloths be frayed, the staff inexperienced, the view predictable, the music annoying, but if the food's sublime — the rest, as they say, is silence.

Whether or not she happens to be physically in the kitchen, the chef is responsible for what comes out of it. There are a million mitigating circumstances — moneyless budget, sucky suppliers, staffs on drugs — that can affect the quality of a restaurant meal, but her job is to control all of those factors and turn out a consistently good product.

So how do I judge whether the food is "delicious"? Well, I ask myself some contextual questions. What's the culinary culture this menu springs from? At Flavors of Italy, it's Italian. How does it compare to the hundreds of Italian restaurants in Broward and Palm Beach County? Is it Tuscan, Venetian, Sicilian, "Jersey" Italian, or "Continental"? Is it a family place or a special-occasion restaurant? Anything noticeably new or unexpected going on here? How does it compare with the fare you might sample while traveling around the old boot? How does it stack up to Mama's?

At Flavors of Italy, the antipasti menu tells all: House Specialty antipasto pie, shrimp cocktail, roasted peppers, mozzarella with tomato and basil. And the hot ones: Clams in red or white wine or oreganata, escargot, mushrooms stuffed with crab, calamari, grilled portabella, fried mozzarella. There are three salads, minestrone, and pasta & fagioli, all priced from $9 to $13.

So we have here a traditional Italian-American menu with Continental flourishes (snails, shrimp cocktail). Nothing except maybe the antipasto pie is even slightly trendy or experimental. You could flip open six-dozen Italian restaurant menus in two counties and find the same line-up. Barisone is working within a tradition of well-loved favorites, as comfortable as a pair of old slippers.

This sharpens the focus. We know what the chef is not trying to do now, right? He's not back there concocting insane foams and sauces, making wild pairings of eerily disparate ingredients. He's evidently hoping to soothe a not overly adventurous clientele. The question becomes, what could make these familiar foods, prepared in familiar ways, taste "delicious"?

Which brings me to my second principle: "It's gotta be fresh."

And to my third principle: "It's gotta be balanced."

And my fourth: "The flavors of the ingredients should be clear and distinct, not dull or muddy."

And to my one disclaimer: "I eat everything."

There's practically no meat, vegetable, or fungus I dislike — or if there is, I haven't tried it yet. I admit I'm probably no great fan of the Filipino hard-boiled duck embryos called balut, but frankly I have yet to run across one on a Broward menu. Whatever the cuisine, if a dish is well prepared, even exotic, I don't have any prejudices — only against food that's stale, rotten, freezer-burned, rancid, off-flavored, or entirely flavorless from mishandling. No worries: I'm not a finicky eater. When I scan down the offerings at Flavors of Italy, from the lasagna to the salmone al forno to the scallopini saltimbocca, there's not an item I'd turn my nose up at — and this is true of the overwhelming majority of menus I stick my nose into. To have antipasti enough to share, and to get a good idea of the kitchen's range, we order three of them plus a salad. We get mozzarella-basil-tomato: fresh cheese, red and juicy tomato, basil leaves redolent of cinnamon and pepper. It's a classic dish, prepared this way by many and forever, because the ingredients are ideal counterpoints to one another: texture, acidity, mouth-feel, and fragrance. It's not rocket science. You could make this at home in three minutes for $3, but you're not at home, are you? Give it a solid B. Clams oreganata are neither fresh (the clams are dry and dull), nor balanced (the oreganata coating is too heavy). Here's a case of a classic dish that's been mishandled and ruined by aging shellfish wrongly seasoned and overcooked. D-plus. The capricciosa salad ("house specialty, trust us") of romaine, radiccio, Belgian endive, olives, red peppers, mushrooms, and a heavy coating of blue cheese has problems. The lettuces are crisp but the mushrooms are canned, the peppers from a jar. There's way too much blue cheese (a strong cheese, which crushes even the aggressive, bitter, vegetal flavors of endive and radiccio like a jackboot) and vinegar. A lighter hand with the cheese and vinegar, some freshly marinated mushrooms, and this might have been interesting. What do you think? A "Gentleman's C"?

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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