Chef Leo Balestrieri is larger-than-life -- and so is his new ristorante and enoteca, Apicius, in Lantana.
His vision is unique, his dishes extravagant, his style flamboyant -- and his taste -- arguably incomparable.
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Balestrieri will give you two reasons behind the decision to name his restaurant oasis Apicius:
It's also homage to his formal cooking education at the Apicius Culinary Institute of Florence, where he graduated -- not to pursue a career in the restaurant world -- but for the sheer joy of working with food.
Apicius is no first-time foray into the restaurant world forBalestrieri, however. In the Tuscan region of Italy -- where he was born and raised -- his family has been in the restaurant business for generations. And his time in the kitchen is numbered not in years but decades.
Even so, Balestrieri left Italy in the early '90s to pursue a career in real estate development. Since that time, he has owned a series of restaurants in damned near every city he's set up shop. From Toronto and New York City to his most recent -- Mulberry Street Trattoria in Boone, North Carolina.
His final stop: Ocean Avenue in Lantana, Florida.
An artist in every sense of the word, Balestrieri's other passion makes itself evident in a more physically permanent sense when compared to the fleeting beauty of plated food: the aesthetics of a well-designed interior space.
That's exactly what you'll find at Apicius, where Balestrieri channels A Midsummer Night's Dream year-round. It's a 4,000-square-foot garden oasis that seduces you with its subdued serenity. In the entryway, columns of waning, molten candles drip cream wax tears, creating soft sculptures in the exposed foyer. It's Balstrieri's own personal mark, the same romantic vision you'll find overtaking the furniture in his own home, he says.
Warm, earthen terra cotta bricks lay the foundation for the rustic-chic interior. It pairs well with the fresh foliage that surrounds the large, open outdoor dining space -- much of it herbs and plants used to garnish and spice the dishes, all from his on-site garden.
Soft lighting is sourced by massive metal chandeliers suspended from glossy, laminated wood-beam pitched ceilings, candlelight delicately illuminating the white tablecloth tables beneath, goblet-like wineglasses glimmering.
And, like the king of his castle, Balestrieri surveys his creation in true regal form, moving from table to table throughout the night. He wants you to feel at home, and even his waitstaff delivers in casual, cool, black dress shirts paired with jeans -- the official Apicius dress code.
We sat down with Balestrieri to see what brought him to Florida and what makes Apicius the new place to "experience" an evening of good food and wine.
Clean Plate Charlie: So you're in Lantana. Why did you pick this location?
I love this place, even though it's underdeveloped. I'm a real estate developer, and I see something happening here [on Ocean Avenue]. It's one of the few streets in South Florida that leads directly to the beach. It's chic.
You're the owner and co-chef. Tell me about how you got started in the restaurant industry?
My grandparents owned the top three [mission] restaurants in Florence, so I grew up around great food. It was always a passion. It's my calling.
My menu draws upon culinary skills from all over the world. I grew up eating great food [in many different countries across Europe]. My father was a lover of good food, and my parents would take me to every [well-known] restaurant in every city we visited.
How would you describe your cooking style?
I can take anything and turn it into something amazing. It's what I love to do. My food is not about masquerading the product to make it taste better. The quality speaks from the natural flavor. I just need to plate and present it properly. That's what the Florentine and French do -- they don't subordinate the food.
What sets Apicius apart from other Italian restaurants in South Florida?
This is nothing like this area has seen before. A lot of people are looking for this food and can't find it, so that's what will set us apart from the other Italian restaurants. My food is radically chic and simplistic. I've joined together the best of Italian, Florentine, and French cuisine. I want you to taste the sublime. The flavors -- they all come from fresh ingredients, produce and meat and fish brought in daily. If I don't have it that day, you aren't eating it. The meat, the olive oil, the herbs, the cheese -- it's all the same.
How often do you turn down orders because you don't have the ingredients in-house?
Yes, it happens often. Depends on what it is, though, and if I've ordered it -- or have just had a busy night and have gone through all of my stock. It happens most with the Bouillabaisse and branzino (European seabass).
I've heard people talk about your food -- and the prices. Are you going for a high-end clientele?
The price is in the quality of the food you are getting, but that is not what this is about. I import most of my specialty items straight from Italy, like the buffalo mozzarella and cheeses, the porcini mushrooms and truffles. And everything I cook comes in fresh, the day it's served. If I were to charge what I should, it would be astronomical. I am not here to make a killing. If I were, I'd be out of business already. I'm here to bring my love -- my passion -- to the table.
This isn't your typical restaurant. Everything is made on a minute. You're going to wait a little longer, but from start to finish, it's about the experience. Each dish is prepared individually. If you come here to eat, don't expect to be in and out. You're going to be here all night. I like to suggest people have the cheese plates after dinner with a great Italian dessert wine. Likewise, when you come in, have an aperitif before you eat. This is your own, private dinner party.
Tell us about the menu. What are your favorite dishes to prepare?
Everything. All my pastas are handmade, from the Medaglioni all'Aragosta [Maine lobster ravioli topped with lobster, caviar, and a crème fraîche in a rosé lobster demiglacé, $35] to the Fagottini al Tartufo Bianco e Nero [whipped butter and cream-filled pasta "purses" with fresh shaved black truffles, $33].
And my Foie Gras della Casa (MP) is the best around -- I guarantee it. My partner [and co-chef Molliere] is a master chef. Born in Paris, he's learned from, and has been trained by, some of the greatest chefs in Europe. He learned how to make [the dish] at Maxim's [in Paris].