Fabio Cracco describes his specials the way a swooning grandmother gushes over a new grandchild. His hands make sweeping circular motions as he explains how meaty, salty cubes of speck — an Italian ham made with pork shoulder — and pungent Gorgonzola cheese together create a simple yet rich sauce that perfectly complements al dente penne ($16.80). He lays his hands flat on his chest when describing how a fillet of red snapper ($22) is pan-seared. He then scrunches his face and puckers his lips into a kiss, explaining how bright-tasting lemon and olive oil are drizzled atop the succulent fillet moments before it hits the table. He smiles and nods with delight whenever a special is ordered.
Cracco stands about six feet tall, with a thin face, shiny black hair, and narrow rectangular glasses. He wears a white waist-to-floor apron and crisp black chef's coat.
His restaurant, La Cucina Veneziana, is a little less handsome. The unimpressive, 35-seat space on the first floor of an office building is surrounded on all sides by windows. Beyond one wall lies an interior office corridor. A flat-screen television hangs in a corner, silently broadcasting CNN. Past the dining room's dark wood tables and stainless-steel chairs lies a partly open kitchen adjacent to a refrigerated display case. But inside that, there is beauty, in the form of Italian salumis and berry-covered tarts dusted with powdered sugar.
The nondescript space looks like just a basic joint for a hurried bite, but small clues hint that there's more going on here.
During a weekday lunch, the perpetual click click click of Cracco beating eggs (for his carbonara sauce) doubles as background music. On a Friday night, he holds the door for little gray-haired ladies as the restaurant empties. Each one receives a kiss on the cheek followed by a wide smile and a slight bow as she makes her way toward her car. Most amazingly, he turns out addictive dishes that burst with bright, rich flavors from wondrously simple ingredients.
Cracco is part of a dying breed of chefs and restaurateurs motivated not by gastronomic fame or restaurant profits but instead is content with a small, personal space where he can offer loyal regulars perfectly cooked and seasoned dishes using time-honored techniques. His charm and impeccable manners whisk diners far away from Fort Lauderdale to a simple, reliable countryside trattoria where there is no need to ask "What's good today?"
In a thick yet high-pitched Italian accent, Cracco explains that he was born into a Venetian family "where food was not only a need but a pleasure too. I was always with my mother and father in the kitchen. They were both into cooking. What I learned from my parents is what I cook here."
Venice is in northern Italy, atop the Adriatic Sea right where "the boot" flares. Its cuisine is far different from the red-sauced dishes most Americans equate with Italian food. The "knowledge of [Italian] food here comes from New York originally," Cracco says. "If you look at immigration after the war in Italy, where you lived determined where you went. Immigrants from Naples and the south, where red sauce reigns, headed for New York. The people from Northern Italy, Cracco says, instead made their way to countries like Venezuela and Argentina.
All'anitra ($17.50) is the perfect dish to highlight those differences. The pasta and duck ragout begins by slow-cooking a whole bird in its own fat until the meat falls from the bone — no less than four hours. The juicy, delicately flavored flesh is tossed with only spaghetti and Parmigiano Reggiano, not a tomato or a drop of red sauce in sight. How Cracco develops such depth of flavor with so few ingredients is both a mystery and a delight.
"It's simple," he says. "Sometimes with food, you don't need to get crazy; you need to start with quality." He fills the pantry with protein from the nearby Pompano Meat & Fish Market and vegetables from nationwide distributor Restaurant Depot.
He smiles with satisfaction when he appears tableside and sees plates wiped clean of sauce with the help of a crispy, airy, house-made foccacia bread that Cracco bakes himself, arriving at the restaurant around 7 a.m. six days a week to start.
His culinary training began at 15, when he attended the Istituto Alberghiero de Stato, a government-run hospitality school in Venice. At 19, he joined the army and spent a year cooking for officers. Later he traveled and cooked across Europe. He owned a pizzeria called Panaretto about a half-hour's travel from Venice in 1996 and 1997. Soon after, he pulled up roots and crossed the Atlantic to cook aboard private yachts in the Caribbean.
The private chef work brought Cracco and Fort Lauderdale together. Here, "I can find everything I'm used to using: the mushrooms, the different salamis, the different cheeses from Sardinia," he says, "and I like the weather."
He was part owner of another Panaretto, a pizza place on 17th Street in Fort Lauderdale, but sold his share to partners in late 2012. He opened his new venture in early March. During lunch and dinner, two assistants on the floor and one more in the kitchen help Cracco ensure service is smooth and courteous. Guests are never left wanting for a beverage refill or a sprinkling of fresh, grated Parmesan yet never feel as though anyone other than Fabio is taking care of them.
The menu is simple, though high-priced for the modest surroundings. A pair of appetizers accompanies a handful of salads and several pasta options. There are a few familiar, Southern Italian options such as a spicy amatriciana ($15.50) with bacon, fresh tomato marinara, and crushed red pepper. Bruschetta make up a large part of the menu: Ciabatta bread is sliced into narrow rectangles and topped with simple but fresh ingredients like mozzarella and tomato sauce, cured Italian ham and creamy marscapone cheese, or wild mushrooms and bacon.
Ultimately, La Cucina Veneziana is about tradition, a theme embodied by the pepata di cozzi ($11.90). More than a dozen and a half meaty mussels are steamed and tossed in a tangy marinara sauce brightened with chunks of fresh tomato, white wine, and butter. A touch of red pepper adds a pleasant hit of spice.
"That sauce was my father's, and for the first 23 years of my life, every Sunday morning at 11 a.m., I had to be home with [him] eating mussels," Cracco says. "At 43 years old, I'm still doing it, every Sunday, with my wife and daughter."
Cracco acknowledges his restaurant is one of hundreds of faceless Italian eateries strewn across Broward County, and if there is to be any hope of success, he says, he must develop a following of locals and break free of the rat race restaurants run during high and low tourism seasons.
"I go to each table to explain the menu," he says. "If you want something that's not on the menu and not on the [specials] board, I'll make it if I have the ingredients."
Like his specials, Cracco's house-made desserts are available in limited quantities. One night, the torta della nonna ($5) is lemon. A creamy layer of sweet-sour citrus custard sits inside a flaky butter crust. A dusting of powdered sugar adds a snowy allure to each slice without being overly sweet. Once every slice of the tart is gone, it's off the menu. The following night's diners may be offered a similar tart made with fresh berries, a strawberry bread pudding, or a semifreddo: a frozen mousse atop an amaretto cookie.
La Cucina Veneziana sets a high bar for Broward's Italian restaurants, but its secret is its unabashed simplicity. That wonderful duck ragout pasta? It's served on a plastic plate.