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Restaurant Reviews

Not Ready For Prime Time

If you're thinking about opening (a) an Italian restaurant or (b) a steak house, you'd better come up with an original idea. These days we're so overrun with both kinds of eateries that neither is appealing, either to the restaurant critics who have to describe them or to the dining public who has to frequent them. Not many people I know suggest going out for Italian food or a steak anymore, simply because it's a given that you can score a plate of pasta or a piece of red meat just about anywhere.

Enter Timpano Italian Chophouse, an Italian-oriented steak house located on East Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, where two tired trends have been combined to elevate dinner to new heights. At least that's the intention. The décor is stereotypical steak house, with dark woods, white linens, and wrought iron chandeliers turned down so low the bartender has to give you a penlight to read the drinks menu. The fare, on the other hand, treads the line between Italia and the stockyards. But while it has potential, Timpano at present fails to make good on either the starch or the beef.

If you analyze the six-week-old restaurant from an Italian point of view, you simply have to wonder why the calamari fritti appetizer was served with sweetish cocktail sauce as well as quartered lemons. I know the cocktail sauce is billed on the menu, but we'd forgotten all about it in the interim between ordering and eating. What's more, the eatery is so dimly lighted that the cocktail sauce was easily mistaken for the more customary marinara. Thus our taste buds were shocked. While the squid was tender, the batter was slick with grease and lacking in savor, needing the marinara to spice it up.

If you look at the place from a steak house point of view, however, the cocktail sauce, which also accompanies the shrimp cocktail, makes sense. As does "the wedge," a salad. The wedge is pretty much as it sounds -- a section of iceberg lettuce surrounded by chopped tomatoes and topped with crumbled blue cheese. Red-wine vinaigrette, when it mixed with the cheese, turned a creamy pink. This was a tasty if not particularly challenging starter for the kitchen to prepare.

Other appetite teasers seemed to elude the staff, however. For one thing the kitchen has a problem with pacing. Our fried mozzarella, a plate of three hefty discs placed on a puddle of somewhat salty marinara, was spat out so quickly that the cheese hadn't been given time to melt through. Some sections of the crumb-coated cheese were warm and melty, others stiff like string cheese.

On another starter we suspected prepreparation. The pasta dishes, which can be had as half orders, sounded intriguing, and it took us a while to settle on a dish of noodles topped with pan-roasted vegetables and dressed with porcini mushroom broth. Unfortunately the kitchen had run out of this dish that evening, so when the waitress returned to tell us so, we went with our second choice, gigantoni with chicken, mushrooms, and pesto-cream sauce. No sooner had the words left our lips than the dish showed up; clearly the gigantoni, which were long, wide, and curly like lasagna noodles, had not been boiled just for us. The chicken, shaved in patchy strips, was pleasingly tender, but the pesto-cream sauce contained way too much salt and was lukewarm and congealed.

Incidentally, half orders of pasta are not half price. The full order of gigantoni runs $12.95, but a half order is $9.95. This discrepancy in prices suggests a restaurant selling technique that I particularly dislike and that Timpano apparently practices. Certain "extras" cost extra, yet the server obfuscates that fact. An illustration:

Guest One: "I'll have the bone-in Delmonico."

Perky Server: "Would you like that al forno or al balsamico?" She then explained that the first was a paste comprising Parmesan cheese and garlic that crowned the steak, and that the second was a honey-vinegar glaze. She never did mention, however, that both styles cost another buck on top of the initial price, or even that just plain grilling was available for no additional fee. In the end we chose al forno, which flat out ruined what could have been a thoroughly enjoyable steak. The al forno topping was so salty and overpowering it rendered the entire piece of meat as inedible as a tire (albeit one that had just run over 30 cloves of garlic).

Another example:

Guest Two: "I'd like the veal saltimbocca."

Perky Server: "Which potatoes would you like with that?"

Guest Two: "Which ones are there?"

Perky Server: "Mashed with roasted garlic or mashed with Gorgonzola." Of course not a word about the spud side dishes being $4.50 each. Now, granted, all these fees are written on the menu, so misrepresentation isn't a legal issue here. It's just unethical, like a clothing salesperson not mentioning that the outfit is actually sold as separates. (If you want to be really outraged, order the fresh fish of the day "garlic & scampi" style -- that's an extra $4 for a little vampire-proofing and a shrimp or two.)

The mashed potatoes turned out to be unworthy anyway -- the bodiless mass had been topped with whole, unincorporated cloves of roasted garlic. Another potato dish, Tuscan fries, usually accompanies the 14-ounce top sirloin, but our waitress was kind enough to order a portion for us so we could try them. I'll say this for the service -- it may be misrepresentative, but it's plenty accommodating. (And did I mention perky?) Too bad the Tuscan fries, which were giant steak fries rather than something slightly more interesting (and Italian), were not only soggy but spiced with an odd sour flavor.

As for the saltimbocca, this was perhaps the best entrée we sampled. The scaloppini of veal had been dredged in flour, layered with prosciutto, and sautéed. Melted provolone and a dark sage sauce finished the dish, which was oddly paired with nutlike wheat berries instead of pasta or risotto. Strange, again too salty, but overall at least tasty.

The lasagna Bolognese, on the other hand, was easily the most disappointing of our main courses. The baked dish was served not in a casserole but on a plate, in a brick so large it could have carried a body down to the bottom of a river. The enormous portion might have been a boon had the lasagna not been so dry and pasty. It was set on a smear of sauce but had little to none oozing out of its interior. Instead of a single noodle sheet, several sheets were used between each layer of ricotta and spiced meat, making the dish unnecessarily dense. The whole block was covered in a swath of melted mozzarella. A lighter touch and an infusion of sauce throughout the casserole would be an improvement.

We almost lost interest in dessert when the server described a "Tuscan key lime pie" as "your basic key lime pie" (insert lackadaisical tone here). But her countering enthusiasm for a house-made tartufo (truffle cake) turned out to be warranted. Sized more like a slice from a timbale (a large, drum-shape dish) than from a tartufo, the wedge of rich chocolate cake was layered with both white- and dark-chocolate mousse, a little dense but still quite creamy and satisfying.

The Italian steak house could be an interesting addition to the Las Olas area if Timpano would ease up on the salt, present prices honestly, and do some more authentic Italianizing of the food. The formula has been tried before and meets with success in places like Tuscan Steak in Miami, where the tasty fare warrants its terrific fan base. Add other Italian steak houses to the list of Timpano's possible rivals, and the chophouse actually has a triple dose of competition out there. And frankly, right now it's paling in comparison thrice over.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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