If you were to close your eyes and imagine a neighborhood café with a touch of Italian, you'd probably conjure something a lot like Pronto Café in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. The room would be given an informal layout with a lunch-counter bar, exposed brick, weathered wood decor, and, of course, an artisan pizza oven.
Locals would be dining on the outdoor patio, where tables large and small would be occupied by couples and families as they quietly share a morning bite or noisily celebrate birthdays and special occasions. And on busy nights, friendly staff would make the rounds with heaping platters of pasta while pouring bottles of wine.
On a recent weekday night, this is a scene straight from Pronto Café, a 5-month-old establishment that sits at the entrance to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea's tourist-trap-establishment quarter. Occupying a prominent building at the corner of Commercial Boulevard and Seagrape Drive, its grand entrance is an impressive prelude to the quaint, rustic interior beyond.
See also: Closer Look: Pronto Cafe (Photos)
Bill Specce opened Pronto in August in partnership with longtime family friend Leone Padula, owner of Fort Lauderdale's Gran Forno bakery and Gran Forno Pronto. It stands as a second location, of sorts, to Gran Forno Pronto, the original café located on Las Olas Boulevard. With a larger kitchen and a pizza oven, Specce said his goal is to offer a place for locals to eat, drink, and relax.
"I always wanted to have my own restaurant," says Specce, a New York-born jack-of-all-trades who has dabbled in everything from piloting planes to practicing chiropractic therapy. "Unlike the other Pronto, what makes us so unique is that we have the full kitchen to do everything -- breakfast and lunch but also a full dinner menu with pastas and pizza."
For Specce, Pronto Café's founding precept is that everything here tastes better because it's handmade. The menu teems with meticulously prepared delicacies. The dough, breads, and pastries are delivered daily from Gran Forno, and pastas are prepared in-house. Even the wood-fired pizzas are prepared by a dedicated chef, who cooks them to the perfect char and crisp in an imported Pavesi oven, what Specce claims is the first of its kind in South Florida.
In keeping with these authentic aims, the guiding principle at Pronto Café, says Specce, is choice: You can arrive at almost any time of day, choose from a variety of seating options, and sample from a number of unique, handcrafted items.
Be it morning or evening, the space can go from several tables to full capacity in a matter of minutes, particularly when hungry passersby venture in from the street. They are probably in search of something other than burgers, bar food, and tacos, says Specce.
Much about this restaurant is small: the 20 seat dining room; the tiny glass-walled wine room that displays the house selections; the partially open kitchen, visible from the dining room; and even the staff, all of which you'll know by name after only a few visits.
The menu, however, is not -- but only because it encompasses everything from poached-egg sandwiches and pancakes to panini and pizza. The fare here is a breed of quietly excellent Italian, delivered by the hand of executive chef Claudio Sandri, an Iron Chef America contestant and former executive chef for Mancini's Italian Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. His wife, Gabriela Guerrara, works by his side; a lauded pastry chef, she helms the café's center bar, preparing the restaurant's impressive panini-pressed sandwiches.
If you arrive for lunch, many of the options can easily be translated to an early dinner (or even a late-night snack). But with so many options resting on Gran Forno's off-premises bakery, they can also be in disappointingly limited supply. Take the prosciutto di parma sandwich, one of many made fresh each day. A generous portion of Italian prosciutto is layered with ripe tomatoes and marinated roasted peppers, two thick slabs of house-pulled mozzarella, and a dense pile of arugula. Delivered between two giant slices of fresh-baked ciabatta bread, it's enough for a hearty meal come dinner -- but only if the café still has it available after the midday rush.
Likewise, the pasta e fagioli soup -- served in a custom-baked bread bowl cured to a crisp in the restaurant's pizza oven -- makes for an entrée by itself. But Pronto often runs out of bread by day's end, and the alternative ceramic bowl is a letdown that will leave you hungry for more.
Having a local legacy -- and partnership -- like Gran Forno's to build upon might make success seem like a foregone conclusion. To Sandri's credit, however, the biggest thing about the place isn't the baked goods from big brother but dinner. Main plates are classically executed, including a vitello alla Milanese, a tender cut of veal breaded and fried in clarified butter. It's topped with a bright cherry tomato salad beneath a crown of curly arugula leaves and finished with shaved Parmesan and a syrupy balsamic drizzle.
Served in a shiny aluminum pan, the linguine alle vongole is billed as a signature dish. You can have it red or white (we chose the latter), a thin wash of wine and clam sauce with just a touch of heat from crushed red pepper and a poignant note from fresh chopped garlic.
No matter what time of day, you'll want to leave room for dessert. Sure, all Italian restaurants have their own version of tiramisu, but rarely does it achieve the creamy decadence it does here. Delivered in a layered cake, it is an ingenious exercise in texture, managing to be simultaneously creamy and bread-like, with alternating layers of whipped mascarpone and espresso-soaked sponge cake.
Pronto's simple approach to artigianale offerings keeps it from falling prey to the typical Italian restaurant canon, making it a good fit for the casual, fun-loving Lauderdale-by-the-Sea crowd. It avoids both the pomp of modern Italian cuisine -- which has no place in the casual beachside community -- and is fresh enough to steer clear of the caloric suicide that often goes hand in hand with the cuisine's family-style servings. Try it for a quiet morning coffee or an easy grab-and-go lunch and return for an evening meal and a glass of wine, then decide for yourself which part you like best.
Pronto Café is located at 222 Commercial Blvd., Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Open 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Call 954-648-9889, visit prontobythesea.com.
Nicole Danna is a food blogger covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.
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