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Restaurant Reviews

Italian Food, Unchained

Can the owner of TGI Fridays and Krispy Kreme franchises find happiness and truly Italian cuisine in a giant shopping mall in Boca Raton?

In a word, yes.

Hey, I didn't believe it either. But in the case of Pranzo, a spacious, airy space in the sprawling shopalopolis of Mizner Park, proprietor James Cosentino has created a restaurant whose food, while occasionally tipping its hat to American franchise appetites, still boldly sings of the fresh, clean, unfussy flavors that are the essence of authentic Italian cookery.

Those menu compromises may seem a little odd at first. There's caesar salad with chicken, a dish as ubiquitous as Rosie O'Donnell and even less likely to go away; there's an emphasis on meat, particularly beef; there is, of course, a burger. And then there's this: "Tuscan BBQ chicken wings with gorgonzola dipping sauce." Now, I'm not sure just what part of Tuscany this delicacy hails from, but I'll bet it's from the same place that has given us such other regional specialties as pollo fritto in a bucket, extra crispy, and nachos con sugo di pomodoro piccante e formaggio.

Would I make this stuff up?

Well, some of it I might. But don't let stupid menu tricks fool you. Pranzo may have fuzzy pink dice hanging in the windshield and Britney Spears blasting on the stereo, but beneath its hood beats the race-tuned heart of Modena's finest, fastest, hand-built Ferrari.

Credit there goes to chef Anthony Pizzo, who comes to Pranzo from Bistro Mezzaluna in Fort Lauderdale. Despite his time in South Florida, Pizzo has somehow managed to overcome the curse of so many local chefs, who seem to find consistently turning out honest, good-tasting food less satisfying than piling the United Nations on each plate and dressing it up like an elephant wearing a tutu.

Credit also has to go to owner Cosentino. Say what you will about the social and gastronomic merits of food production units like Fridays and Kreme, but they're hugely successful, generally well-run national businesses that didn't get that way by ignoring the finer points of their industry. So at Pranzo, there's none of the raging attitude and cheery witlessness that can make dining out feel like an evening with the Three Stooges and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. Service is personable and professional; the staff knows the menu and makes good suggestions when asked. All the parts run smoothly, like a well-oiled, well-practiced machine.

A pretty good-looking machine too, as Pranzo makes the most out of a generic shopping-mall space. The large, squarish dining room is broken up by wood-faced banquettes that run down the center, a glassed-in kitchen and more banquettes on one side, a long bar and plenty of tables on the other. The sound-reflecting slate floor is canceled out by a high ceiling and the room's clever partitioning, so even at peak hours, you don't get those ear-bleeding South Beach noise levels that make a half-empty dining room sound like a Pearl Jam concert. There's abundant patio seating and, in another clever touch, an outdoor counter with a pass-through to the indoor bar.

The wine list is perhaps not quite as clever, strongest in Italian reds and California whites, with a number of worthy offerings on the saintly side of $30. Ten bucks more, though, gets you a real sleeper, the 1999 Banfi Rosso di Montalcino, a wine as authentically Tuscan as bufala-style chicken wings are not. It takes awhile to open up, but when it does, it reveals layers of smooth cherry and plum flavors, finishing with hints of nutmeg and allspice. Medium bodied, with firm acidity behind ripe fruit, it's an excellent food wine.

It's also the perfect accompaniment to one of the best dishes on the menu, a recommendation from our thoroughly competent and enjoyable waiter that I'm only too happy to pass along. Even if vegetarians and their gastronomically correct whining give you hives, you'll love Pranzo's portobello carpaccio. It arrives looking like a Jackson Pollock painting, the plate covered with the sliced fungi, cut just thick enough to show off its meaty texture, then scattered with sun-dried tomatoes, capers, and basil chiffonade, dribbled with roasted garlic aioli, and scented with truffle oil. Each bite sets off a little explosion of flavor: earthy, sweet, tangy, pungent. It's pure delight.

That same deft hand in playing flavors against one another makes a common dish uncommonly delicious. You've probably seen pancetta-wrapped prawns on more than a couple of restaurant menus around town, but Pizzo takes it one step further, pitting the sea-sweet savoriness of the bacon-jacketed crustaceans against the sharp, lingering bitterness of broccoli rabe, cooked all the way through in the Italian manner, not in the crunchy Asian style. Nutty brown butter perfumed with sage pulls all the elements together.

From there, we moved on to a couple of lesser dishes. Caesar salad -- thankfully, sans chicken -- was nicely done if not inspired. Its creamy dressing lacked the gustatory gut-punch of garlic, lemon, and anchovy, as if the chicken-on-lettuce crowd might get its feathers ruffled if anyone knew they were actually stepping out and grabbing for flavor.

Cappellini with jumbo lump crab was similarly flavor-challenged, though for a much better reason. Fresh Maryland crab is a wonderful thing, and any chef with his Italian sensibilities screwed on straight would sooner spread molten mozzarella over scampi alla griglia than obscure its delicate, candy-of-the-sea flavor. So chopped tomatoes, pancetta, olives, and peas were added in judicious amounts, but the seafood broth they swam in was too bland a backdrop to bring the various tastes into focus.

The kitchen nailed it on the next try, though. Fillets of yellowtail snapper, to my mind the best-eating fish in the country, were expertly sautéed and crowned with a simple but sublime relish of lemon, capers, and -- miracle of miracles! -- fresh tomatoes that actually tasted like the real thing, ripened on the vine. I don't know where Pizzo gets these babies, but I want a case delivered to my door before noon tomorrow.

Don't despair, carnivores: For you, there's the 14-ounce veal porterhouse, a thick slab of meat grilled to rosy perfection and succulent right down to your toenails, goosed with a very Frenchy morel sauce and truffle-infused mashed potatoes.

Frenchy is also a good way to describe Pranzo's take on the classic Italian zabaglione, especially since it's called by its Gallic moniker of sabayon. Typically a fiercely beaten mélange of liqueur, egg yolks, and sugar, here the liqueur is Grand Marnier, and the texture is French creamy rather than Italian frothy. Who cares? It's great stuff, poured over mixed berries as fantastically ripe as those tomatoes.

Of course, no meal would be complete without chocolate, and if Pranzo's heroically portioned, breathtakingly intense chocolate-espresso torte doesn't lift the chocolate jones off your back, see your physician. Or your pastry chef.

The best part of all this is now that James Cosentino has found happiness and truly Italian cuisine in a giant shopping mall in Boca Raton, you can too. In fact, after eating here, you might just leave saying, "Thank God it's Pranzo."

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Bill Citara

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