It's the middle of the night and, for whatever reason, you're hungry. Fork in hand, you open the refrigerator door, praying there's something waiting. You find condiments, some processed grated cheese that seems to never go bad, and a white styrofoam container. Inside it are the remains of a two-foot-wide platter of pillow-soft gnocchi and a trio of braised boneless short ribs. You dive in, and despite the chill on the leftovers, the richness of the reduced red wine sauce and the soft but cold potato pasta is just what you need to cap off the day.
That's what we got after visiting Italian Red Sauce. The 200-seat restaurant specializes in classic Italian-American fare and does it in epic portions. That plate of short ribs and gnocchi ($19.95) was more like a manhole cover. It was almost impossible to imagine how many people it could have fed if we'd ordered the shared size for $34.95.
Chef Aldo Vespero, whose likeness is painted fresco-style on a red brick wall toward the back of the restaurant, says family-style portions are at the heart of Italian fare and the restaurant. "Every Sunday we get the family together for big plates, and we eat and talk until we can't anymore."
All dishes, from appetizers to desserts, are available in those larger sizes. On two visits, we ordered only single portions, and all but one yielded generous containers of leftovers.
A blue neon sign hangs over the restaurant's tinted-glass entrance. Outside are strip malls and suburban Broward County; a Hooters sits across the street. Yet once inside, patrons are transported to a touristy but welcoming reinterpretation of New York City's Little Italy. Black-and-white photos of Vespero, owner Al Ceperano, and managers — all of whom are from Napoli — and their families greet guests. Red brick walls wrap the interior of the space. A handful of faux storefronts and tile flooring made to look like cobblestone mimic dining alfresco in lower Manhattan. The fake storefronts include a Cep's Olive Oil Co., Ashley's Fine Dining Restaurant, and Raffa's Italian Bread, all named for family members. It's all a re-creation of Ceperano's grandmother's Little Italy restaurant, Tara Bella, where he worked until he was 18. A small quibble: A few windows to let in natural light during the day might help.
Pasta, pastries, and breads are made in-house. Despite the bakery front, the bread that began each meal was overly chewy and cold. We expected crisp crusts; light, hot interiors; and high-quality olive oil rather than pats of store-bought butter.
Pastas here are a shining example of why restaurants ought to invest the time and effort to make their own. The wide ribbons layered into lasagne alla marchigiana ($16.95/$30.95) were tender, with bits of browned beef and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses clinging to each bite. The sheets also served as a vessel for the restaurant's red sauce, which Vespero — and many Italians — lovingly refers to as "gravy." The vibrant red sauce, the restaurant's namesake, comes on most of the restaurant's dishes. It is both sweet and tart, with the strong essence of garlic punching through. Some bites could have used a pinch more salt, but the bright flavor highlighted whatever it touched, and on several occasions we sopped it up with crusts of bread.
Vespero, originally from Napoli, won't divulge any secrets but says the sauce was his father's recipe and takes about seven hours to cook from start to finish. Stirring with a wooden spoon is key.
We had plenty more of that gravy, which also comes with an order of polpette and ricotta ($14.95/$25.95). A single portion brought two orange-sized meatballs on a huge platter covered in sauce. A few scattered basil leaves and a dome of ricotta that looked more like a scoop of vanilla ice cream finished the plate. The meatballs were hearty without being overly dense and were perfectly seasoned with salt, basil, and oregano. The ricotta, which Vespero admits isn't made in-house, was bland and unnecessary. A simple sprinkle of the freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to add just a bit more salt and richness, would have sufficed.
Vitello alla parmigiana ($24.95/$42.95) again showed off the kitchen's ability to expertly render Italian-American classics under Vespero's guidance. House-made spaghetti was cooked al dente, with just the right bite and coating of sauce. Three colossal veal cutlets, one-and-a-half of which came home with us, were pounded thin, but not so thin that the tender meat was lost in the breading.
Chicken scampi ($25.95) was the only classic that left us missing New York. Though the sauce — made of butter, garlic, lemon, and white wine — struck a flawless balance of ingredients without being greasy, three boneless chicken breasts were underseasoned and overcooked. Steamed vegetables — including broccoli, zucchini, and yellow squash — suffered the same but were saved when mixed into the scampi sauce.
After we gave in to those massive entrées and had them packed to go, our server asked if we were interested in dessert. Of course. But to our surprise, he directed us to a brightly lit glass case framed by those red brick walls and a burgundy awning. "You want to get the full experience," he said. Pastries ranged from cannolis and New York-style cheesecake to pumpkin pie, a holdover from Thanksgiving. A fat slice of cheesecake with tart raspberry jelly ($7) woven throughout arrived on a plate with two mounds of fresh whipped cream. With a thick, rich filling and a light graham cracker crust, the dessert was the closest to a normal-sized portion we had.
Service, from a mostly male staff with thick Italian accents, was meticulous — they never let a drink glass go unfilled or missed a midcourse check-in. On one visit, my guest and I chuckled to ourselves as a pair of women and a waitress touted their New York bona fides. One of the women proudly described the crowded Brooklyn neighborhood she left after retiring. The waitress came alive while telling her she was from the nearby south Brooklyn neighborhood Bensonhurst. Men were dressed professionally in slacks and collared shirts, while ladies sported knee-length dresses or loose-fitting pantsuits. New York accents floated around the room a hair louder than the soundtrack to The Godfather.
If there is any problem here, it's that you probably can't gather a group of relatives and friends large enough to try every dish that will entice you. On the way out after our first visit, we saw servers setting up a table for more than a dozen. We wished it were being set for us.