A tall round of tiramisu was set before us, with its sweet mascarpone cream and coffee- and liquor-soaked lady fingers. The plate was accompanied by a fishbowl-sized cappuccino with a mountain of snowy white foam. As we wrapped up our meal, Jack Mancini graduated to drinking a deep bronze liquor from a snifter. With a thick head of pushed-back silver hair, a 5 o'clock shadow, and a warm smile, the restaurateur sat casually on one of the short, black barstools at Mancini's Modern Italian on East Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, his nose in the glass, inhaling deeply.
While my guest and I waited about 20 minutes between courses, we watched Mancini stroll around his latest restaurant, which opened quietly in early February. Wearing boot-cut jeans and a crisp green button-up shirt, he chatted with customers like a front-of-the-house master. Early during that meal, we saw him holding a rocks glass with a lime wedge in a clear drink. On another visit, Mancini drank only red wine throughout the night. With only three tables filled in the 168-seat dining room, Mancini took his glass and spent most of the night laughing with a foursome.
Mancini has been a Las Olas mainstay for more than a decade. His background is in real estate; he built luxury waterfront homes in Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach. (He still dabbles and is currently working on a 5,000-square-foot home in Idlewyld, a posh neighborhood.) Mancini's entrance into the restaurant business came after traveling through Milan, Bologna, and Florence with friends in the late 1990s. He opened his first namesake restaurant in 2001 on the east end of Las Olas.
"We were going to all the little villages, and after seeing the way they eat there, I decided I wanted to open my own restaurant," he explained by phone. "I designed my own homes, and I liked the idea of trying to build something edgy and trendy with the food to go along with it."
For a decade, Mancini's was a Las Olas favorite with tourists and locals alike. It served reliable Italian fare, and its large breezy patio always seemed abuzz with live music. It closed in 2011; Mancini said his landlord decided not to renew the restaurant's lease.
Around the same time, the restaurateur was branching out with a second concept, M Bar, whose focus was on tapas and cocktails. It served items — fried pig ears and sweetbreads (a more delicate name for cow or veal thymus glands) — that have become popular in trend-setting gastronomic capitals but were downright radical for Las Olas Boulevard.
Mancini owned the property at 1301 E. Las Olas Blvd. and brought in brother-sister team Kevin and Lauren Anderson to run M Bar's kitchen. Kevin came from 1500 Degrees, inside the historic Eden Roc on Miami Beach, while Lauren came from Chicago and the molecular gastronomy restaurant Moto. Yet two months after opening, the pair was out and Mancini brought in Kevin McCarthy, former chef of the beloved Armadillo Cafe, to run the kitchen. But M Bar never really took off. It ended up washing out, and plans to reopen the original Mancini's in an adjacent space in the same building never came to fruition.
"There was a plan to open up next to M Bar," Mancini explains, "but I ended up selling the real estate." (Broward County Court records show he bought the property for $4.3 million in 2006 and sold it in 2012 for the same price after the bank had moved to foreclose.)
But the glitches didn't keep Mancini down. He barely took a break and in January bet on the growing, more businesslike, western end of Las Olas Boulevard, near YOLO, American Social, the Royal Pig Pub, and high-rise office buildings where plenty of high-paid attorneys and bankers work. His new eatery is in the same building as Grille 401.
He may be on to something. On a Tuesday night, hundreds of well-dressed, 30-something professionals with drinks in hand were spilling out of YOLO onto its terrace. A matte-black Lamborghini Gallardo and Porsche Turbo sat menacingly in its driveway.
"I'm excited to be on this part of Las Olas," Mancini said. "This is where all the energy is; I like the downtown area with all of the offices. It's more of an urban, hip, modern feel." Mancini explained his vision: to create a "new Mancini's" with a more modern take on Italian food and a more robust lunch and bar scene.
"I like the new modern way of approaching Italian cuisine," he said, "with more artful presentations and more exotic ingredients, with more herbs and flavors." In a Craigslist ad for a sous chef, the new joint was likened to Babbo, Mario Batali's flagship restaurant in New York City, which serves Italian classics, expertly rendered — and priced to match.
The new restaurant is not a huge stretch from Mancini's original. The space is a little more modern, still on the formal side — but in a sleek, two-button, tailored-Italian-suit way rather than a stodgy three-piecer. Mancini's name, written in blue neon piping, is inlaid into a dark-wood block hung above the outdoor bar, in the same font as the old Mancini's.
To run his new kitchen, he initially recruited Roger Llames, who worked at BLT Prime in New York and with Todd Gray in Washington, D.C. Yet less than two months after opening, Llames is out and Claudio Sandri, who worked for Mancini at his first restaurant, has returned.
Mancini boasted about his chefs' records, saying Sandri once worked for Washington, D.C., toque Roberto Donna and that the two bested Masaharu Morimoto on an episode of Iron Chef. But Mancini — who described himself as a frustrated home chef — noted he has always taken a lead role in developing the menu.
"Whatever chef has been there, I've been very involved with the menu planning and choices, what purveyors we use," he said, "but I give flexibility to the chef."
While on trips to San Francisco and New York, Mancini saw crudo as an emerging dish and wanted to integrate the Italian version of sashimi into his latest project. So, six choices made it to the menu: One features thinly sliced salmon with hardboiled egg, capers, and a pomegranate mostarda, while another offers slivers of lobster with baby arugula dressed with lemon olive oil.
Although the impetus to experiment is admirable, a red snapper crudo ($13) disappointed because of a weird combination of ingredients. A too-thick pesto had a tinny flavor, and "marinated citrus segments" — i.e., grapefruit — were so bitter that we could only pucker. We pushed the thin slices of out-of-place celery aside and just tried to enjoy the translucent slices of sweet fish.
The restaurant fared better with a classic appetizer: two dozen sweet, meaty mussels ($12). There was no broth at the bottom of the bowl or crusts of bread to sop it up, but no matter. The simple preparation, with garlic, olive oil, white wine, and butter, perfectly complemented each briny bite.
The menu also boasts a well-rounded list of pasta dishes, all more than $20 but only some made in-house from scratch. Lasagna is there, as are some more creative attempts.
Several ribbons of thin, inch-wide papardelle ($26) came with pulled rabbit that was advertised as sugo — an ambiguous word for a coarse, tomato-based gravy or something that's simply poured over — but there was little sauce on the plate. A white, earthy truffle foam sat across the top and paired well with the rabbit meat. Without it, however, the rabbit meat was underseasoned and gamey.
About a dozen agnolottis ($24) — rustic pasta purses filled with sweet cubes of roasted butternut squash — were fanned around a small pile of garlicky sautéed spinach topped with stringy pulled lamb meat. A roasted beet salad ($12) arrived with deep-crimson cubes of the sweet tuber with the perfect toothsome texture. Crumbled goat cheese provided a tang-and-salt foil for the beet's sweetness, and candied walnuts with a hint of cinnamon rounded out each bite.
Amid these classy dishes, what Mancini seemed most excited about was having a wood-fired brick oven for making authentic Neapolitan pies. It sat to the rear of the restaurant, wrapped in the same blue mosaic tile as the kitchen, with narrow strips of gray slate arranged around its mouth. Staff, though, may need a little more experience with this new toy: The crust of an individual-sized Salsicca pizza ($12) was overcooked, dry, and in some cases made up half of the slice. The crumbled house-made sausage topping was far too salty.
Evolution is a good thing, and it's nice to see Mancini being ambitious. But the high prices leave little room for mistakes. A thick-cut veal chop cost $41. At rates like that, small quibbles can turn into justified complaints. The chop's Parmesan-rosemary crust was soggy, and the saffron risotto tasted like undercooked arborio rice in a cheese sauce — even though the meat itself was juicy and rich, cooked to the requested medium rare.
Jack Mancini has a proven track record as a restaurateur and commendable aspirations for both himself and the elevation of dining on Las Olas. He seems to know that Italian food is all about simple preparations that let quality ingredients shine but can't resist a little experimentation with truffles and foams and crudos. Somewhere in between a basic lasagna and a fried pig ear, there's got to be a sweet spot. Here's hoping he nails it.