At a dinner party in 1979, Tim and Nina Zagat groused about the local newspaper restaurant reviewer. Afterward, they rallied 200 of their friends to provide amateur reviews of 100 New York restaurants. Soon, the city's gastronomes were clamoring for the results, which had been consolidated and photocopied on legal-sized paper. Zagat guides quickly upended the role of the hoity-toity newspaper review. But today, even those once-mighty Zagat guides are being bumped in relevance by the Yelps and the TripAdvisors of the universe.
On a whim, my editor pulled up the TripAdvisor.com list of top-rated Fort Lauderdale restaurants. The top ten surprised us: no Las Olas standbys like Johnny V's, no chef-driven hideouts like Café Maxx or Hi Life Café, no high-end seafood mecca like 3030 Ocean. The number-one pick on the list at the moment is Gilbert's 17th Street Grill — an order-at-the-counter hamburger joint in a Publix shopping plaza. Gilbert's is followed by the 18-seat Asian-fusion Café Sharaku and then by Coco Asian Bistro, located in the same Publix plaza as Gilbert's. (On Yelp, the top three are Corelli's Pizza and Pasta, Edouardo San Angel, and a breakfast /lunch spot called Eats Good 33.)
You can debate whether these anyone-can-vote internet sites are examples of pure democracy at work or a few select commenters gaming the system. Figuring they are at least a fun jumping-off point for new discoveries, I set off toward the only restaurant in Trip Advisor's top ten that I didn't already know: Lucca Ristorante, number seven, located at A1A and Oakland Park Boulevard, where skyscraping condos rear up and begin the stretch known as Galt Ocean Mile.
"How have I never noticed this place before?" I scolded myself. Justin, my date, peeked above his Android phone mid-email. We blamed it on the bright-blue-and-white sign for the Greek taverna that is directly across the street from Lucca on Ocean Boulevard and always steals our attention when we drive by. Lucca, in contrast, is in a plain beige building just a smidge north of the shopping plaza that houses Martorano's.
I felt awfully proud of myself for discovering this potential underbuzzed find. I imagined myself coming back with girlfriends for cocktails and encouraging my couple friends to hire a babysitter for a getaway dinner here.
The sun was casting its farewell glow against the cement towers of the high-rises behind us when we popped inside. The room was clean but neutral — Mexican-tile floors, wooden chairs and tables with granite tops, cream-colored walls. About eight people crowded a small bar on the left. A chalkboard taking up a chunk of the back wall stood out like a sparkly movie marquee, illuminated by a soft blue glow. On it, daily specials were etched in white chalk: slow-braised spare ribs, smoked salmon ravioli, and a fresh catch of seared grouper.
Moments later, the double to our date arrived. "What a great little find!" said Kate.
"I've driven past here 100 times, and I never noticed Lucca," Brent proclaimed. And they're Fort Lauderdale natives.
We snagged the last of only 12 tables. A mere five minutes later and we would have been cursing ourselves for not making a reservation on this Friday night. Apparently, Lucca isn't such a hidden "find" after all. Families and couples began filtering in the door. The hum of happy conversation resounded through the space.
A 30ish dark-haired man calmly abandoned bartending to care for our table. Vince would seem to be in two places at once throughout the meal but never exuded a lick of stress. He gave us the handsome wine list (we chose a Chianti — La Maialina Toscana, $32 — with fruity yet spicy notes and a finish almost as long as our workweek, but you can also bring your own for an $18 corkage fee) and dropped off complimentary foccacia, warm from the oven and dotted with fresh herbs and parmigiano.
During a phone call to the owners a week or so after my visit, I learned that our waiter was Vince Belcastro, co-owner of Lucca, along with partner and chef David Cianciullo. Both are originally from Montreal. They came to South Florida with three decades of restaurant experience and opened Lucca just four years ago.
Brent was torn between ordering from the standard menu — a tight, focused list featuring Italian favorites like chicken parmigiano and fresh seafood — or the specials. Vince revealed the house favorite: a hearty portion of lasagna ($17) that he proudly explained takes three days to make.
On day one, the homemade pasta is made from scratch and left to rest. The following day, the lasagna is constructed with veal Bolognese and mozzarella and parmigiano reggiano. They let it set, Vince explained, "so that the lasagna won't fall apart." On the third and final day, what lands at your table are seven layers of homemade pasta sheets coated with sweet tomato sauce, luxurious veal, and melted parmigiano cheese forming bronzed buttons crusting the surface. Impressed, Brent raised his arms to embrace the air above him and stated in booming tone: "On the third day, he saw the creation and saw that it was good!"
"I want the lasagna!" Justin quickly called dibs. Truth is, we all wanted that lasagna. Defeated, we turned our attention to the other attractive selections.
For appetizers, we chose the tender grilled octopus ($13), served alongside fresh arugula in delicious citrus-lemon-garlic oil, and sumptuous veal meatballs ($8) capped with velvety tomato sauce.
We rounded out that celebrated lasagna with picks from both the daily specials and the standard menu. Smoked salmon ravioli ($18) was a creative alternative to standard cheese-filled ravioli. Smoky fish contrasted against smooth marinara flecked with garlic and chiffonades of basil for an intriguing taste. Another special showcased the fresh catch of the day: grouper with clams and mussels ($30). The flaky fillet was lightly seasoned and seared, moistened with a delicate broth and decorated with juicy shellfish. Shrimp Toscana ($26) was exceptional, with fist-sized prawns seared and deglazed with grappa, mushroom cream sauce, creamy risotto, and a side of seasonal veggies.
By the time we selected entrées, the front door was crowded, with a family and a few couples patiently awaiting a table. They seemed unbothered, though, thanks to complimentary flutes of champagne Vince brought them.
During my conversation with Vince postvisit, he informed me that they work closely with local suppliers to create the daily specials. "We buy minimal amounts; when we run out, we run out," he explained.
Just past 9 p.m., the small dining room began to quiet and empty. Vince remained unflustered throughout the night. He made a joke when Brent dropped a wineglass, and because it was our first visit, he said, he bestowed upon us three complimentary decadent desserts: pistachio gelato, homemade tiramisu, and chocolate panna cotta. All three were excellent, but you could tell from the clank of four spoons over the panna cotta that it was the table favorite. The Italian pudding was chilled and served daintily in a martini glass, delivering a powerful punch of chocolate and a mind-numbingly silky texture. Prozac for the taste buds.
Weeks have passed since I went to Lucca, and I've recommended it to colleagues and friends, but I haven't returned for a meal nor for cocktails with girlfriends. It's great for a romantic dinner date or family supper. On service and food, Lucca would easily make it into my own Top Ten. But if I'm going to drop a Benjamin or two on a meal, restaurants in my top five get priority in the dining rotation. Why? Lucca is a little too neutral. What could help? A pop of color, some music... and, well, energy. Add some of that and I'll be back in a flash — I'll even bring the gals.