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It Was the Worst of Times

The Best of BrowardPalm Beach issue: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee for the breadth and depth of your pages, for your biblical proportions, for your wise(-ass) advice.

I love thee to the level of everyday's most quiet need to find the best burrito, the best place to take the kids, the best menu typo.

I love thee freely, as customers strive for quality and restaurateurs for quality control; I love thee purely, as the winners turn from praise modestly -- or frame it and post it in their storefront windows.

I love thee with the passion put to use by chefs who seek the good review.

I love thee with a love I seem to lose after every episode of food poisoning -- I love thee with the breath, smile, tears, of all my life that begins again with every delicious morsel.

But I'm sorry, Best of BrowardPalm Beach issue: I doubt, even if God should so choose, that I shall love you better after death. Because sometimes, I want, in your honor, to rewrite Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Best-Known Poem as: How do I loathe thee? And frankly, I don't know if I can count that high.

Just kidding (of course... sort of). I have only one problem with researching the Best of BrowardPalm Beach, which I do pretty extensively for about six months out of every year. What to do about the extra ten pounds I gain in the process? Sorry, joking again. No, my real question is, what to do with the restaurants that didn't make the cut? Some were good, just not the best. Others were downright lousy. One was even great. But most were disappointing in some way, disqualifying them from making the top grade.

For instance I've always been told by Davie residents that Geronimo's Casual Gourmet Grill & Bar (3528 S. University Dr., Davie, 954-474-9998) offers fabulous Greek food. So I put it on the list to research for Best Greek Restaurant this year. My conclusion? Geronimo's is more college-town pub with arcade games and smoky bar than island taberna with salty, ouzo-appreciating revelers. While I have no legitimate objection to beery, leering customers, I do take exception to flirty waitresses who'd rather bat their eyelashes at drunken contemporaries than efficiently serve stodgy ol' grownups (and assorted others) who just want to sample the saganaki (cheese flambé), please.

Nor is the fare anything to write home to the Aegean Sea about. While the menu has a "Greek corner" advertising dishes like spanakopita (spinach pie), this place is about as Greek as a kegger at Sigma Nu. And while the servings of traditional Greek items such as the gyro platter were ample, the meat tasted like the pressed, mystery stuff cafeteria ladies made famous, and the vinaigrette on the feta-laden salad and the tzatziki (cucumber-yogurt dip), both of which accompanied the gyro, lacked zing. A wedge of moussaka -- slices of potato, eggplant, and ground beef layered like lasagna and topped with béchamel sauce -- was also bland and could have been pumped up with some more beef.

Pauloluigi's Brick Oven Pizzeria (7100 Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines, 954-962-8822) proved to be another flop. With so many inexpensive Italian joints in Broward and Palm Beach counties to consider for honors, I'd set my sights on this particular one because I'm fond of its sister location, Pauloluigi's in Coconut Grove, which is nearing two decades of dedicated service. The Pembroke Pines location opened in 1997 and features the same homey décor as the original, complete with red-and-white-checked tablecloths. Of course the Broward site doesn't have the hidden-away, beatnik aspect of the old Grove, which clings to the first Pauloluigi's despite the Grove's tendency toward new-millennium theme park. But when you're situated just off busy Pines Boulevard, that can't be helped. (We should at least be grateful the Pines location is a freestanding building with a parking lot to call its own, I'd imagine.)

What can be helped are the meatballs, which are sodden and flecked with way too much garlic. I remembered after eating them that I'd had the same complaint a few years ago when I reviewed the original eatery, so I checked my archives, and yup, I'm repeating myself. I guess it's true that no one listens to a critic, or these meatballs would be more succulent and savory by now. As it is, they lie on top of uninspiring spaghetti covered by an equally insipid marinara. The same mediocrity applied to the veal Parmesan, a generous cut of pounded veal that had a rubbery quality to both the meat and the mozzarella cheese that blanketed it. Even the house salads that came with the entrées were only just OK, given that the supposedly homemade creamy Italian dressing that came with them had an artificially sweet flavor to it. Only the parmesan-crusted garlic rolls, dripping with buttery oil, lived up to my expectations.

Of course inflated expectations can ruin even a meal that, while good, just isn't "the best." I'm talking here about Cucina D'Angelo (5050 Town Center Cir., Boca Raton, 561-750-2344), the second high-end Italian eatery very recently opened by renowned local chef Angelo Elia. In his defense the place has pleased the Boca Ratonites, one of whom had informed me that she will eat Italian food only here from now on. Back in my own camp, I had every right to anticipate a flawless meal here, since Elia's first place, Casa D'Angelo on North Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, took top Italian honors last year. The new one, opened right next door to Zemi (another premier pick), has the right look for the area: sleek, stylish, all angles and geometry, with extensive patio seating.

I sensed trouble from the get-go, however, when the waiter informed me that the mare mare, listed on the menu as "Cucina D'Angelo Signature Dish," is going to be discontinued because the clientele doesn't care for the grilled shrimp spiked with lemon citronette, one of the lightest and yet most honest dishes on the menu. What do the patrons like? An unsurprising filet mignon with Barolo wine sauce and porcini mushrooms, which was tasty if blasé, and the galletto al mattone, a too-dry mélange of political correctness: "wood oven roasted free range chicken pressed under the brick." Apparently the customers also appreciate paying $12 for the selezione del salumiere, a high-quality assortment of sliced hams and salamis that had tons of peppery flavors but no redeeming aesthetic value whatsoever.

Lest you think my research this year was all funerals and no weddings, however, allow me to announce my happy marriage to the San Francisco Burrito Company (5187 S. University Dr., Davie, 954-680-4040). I was so impressed by the gourmet burritos made on the spot here -- yes, as the place avers in its mission statement, you really can watch the employees "sauté your jumbo shrimp" -- that I am now a card-carrying member. And when I get ten stamps, one for every time I purchase, say, the Fisherman's Wharf burrito (stuffed with shrimp, onions, garlic, salsa, black beans, and rice) or the Thai burrito (filled with chicken breast, veggies, rice, lettuce, and zesty peanut sauce), I can scarf down a roasted pork burrito for free.

The only thing I can't do is reward San Francisco Burrito Company with an award this year. Why? Because of the 50 categories for which I am personally responsible, I discovered after I dined that "Best Burrito" was not one of them. Admittedly, by the end of Best Of season, I'm as flaky as a piece of Best French Pastry. But SFBC can still take heart. As we of the Jewish persuasion say at the end of our Passover Seders, which like the Best of Broward Palm Beach come annually whether we love or loathe them: Next year in, er, San Francisco.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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