We bipedal primates have been playing versions of this game for many centuries, except that sometime around 750,000 years ago, we learned to throw our animal products into or on top of a fire and thus exponentially increase their value as a whoopee incentive. From there to Bobby Flay was just a minor evolutionary hop (some might say backward). If you've ever wondered why Dad sweated and swore over the old Weber or why so many restaurants use the word Grill or Grille in their titles, just think of it as the contemporary equivalent of dangling dead monkey meat.
Pure carnivores in the animal kingdom have lower IQs than their omnivorous cousins: That's why a bit of char-grilled broccolini with your veal saltimbocca is so important (glucose is literally brain food). But we love our meat, and we love it even better cooked there's something sexy and soothing about the smell of fire, and the effect scientists call the browning or Maillard reaction is an appetite stimulant apparently written into our very genes. When a smart chef, who presumably has been eating his vegetables, throws a steak over wood coals, it develops a complex and intensely flavored crust that smells, depending on whom you ask, like scorched grass or onions or earth or cinnamon or wildflowers, from the combination of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur atoms that develops. Sadly, not every eatery that calls itself a grill is anything of the sort the word doesn't mean anything much beyond a reassurance that your food will come out warm. But Rino Balzano put in a real wood-burning oven and grill when he opened his Tuscan Grill a little over a year ago on Las Olas Boulevard, and he uses it for everything from his puffy breads and stuffed quail to an appetizer of Bosc pears with gorgonzola and spec. And he really knows what to do when faced with a pork chop and an open flame.
Balzano, chef to the stars (portraits of Rino mugging for the camera with the beautiful people line these walls), is something of a local celebrity himself; he's known for "miking up" during dinner hours, as he's prone to sing arias for his delighted customers. Balzano has been involved with a string of restaurants in South Florida; now, for the time being, he's concentrating his energies on Rino's Ristorante in Coral Springs and the showcase Grill, where he continues to mix things up with events like his "summer in Italy" Monday-night series during the off months and a changing array of lunch and tapas items for daytime nibblers. It's a cozy and somewhat unassuming space inside blond woods and lots of photos, framed write-ups, and awards on the walls and a long bar with, last time we visited, a matching platinum-blond bartender. Drawn to her light, single men tend to line this bar and linger well beyond the last bite of tiramisu. There's a beautiful waterfront patio too that is open on busy and balmy evenings.
Rino's menu takes classic Tuscan dishes and specialties from the northeastern coast of Italy and douses them with his personal magic. He likes to say he serves "people food": hearty, comforting dishes for the most part free of visual frills and chills but drawing on the dense, earthy ingredients wild mushrooms, tomatoes, game meats that Tuscan cuisine is known for. Dinner begins with a warm, hollow bubble of golden bread, yeasty and weightless, to rip apart as accompaniment for deliciously gritty, salty hunks of Grana Padano and multicolored imported olives and hot peppers.
After we'd settled in, a waiter came over to recite the night's specials, but he seemed confused and hesitant, forgetting to describe preparations and omitting whole dishes; he succeeded only in confusing us. Flustered, he scurried off. When his grizzled elder, who had a thorough grip on the kitchen, came to take our order, he was better able to elaborate. It was no time to be stingy, and diets be damned. We were going for the full four courses as a gastronomic tour of Balzano's expertise.
We started with a plate of fresh buffalo milk mozzarella (Funghi di Bosco, $12), great creamy rounds of subtly flavored cheese, dense and chewy, topped with a forest-scented ragu of wild mushrooms with oven-roasted tomatoes in a reduced veal stock. The complicated flavors and warmth of wild mushrooms make a terrific foil for that cool, pillowy cheese and the tart, lightly charred tomatoes. Other appetite stimulants include salads (a classic caesar, an arugula with pear, a fantasia of gorgonzola, apples, and walnuts), pasta e fagiole, beef carpaccio with arugula and slices of fennel, and littleneck clams cooked in wine.
Fresh pasta is a house specialty, so a half order between courses is a necessary pleasure. The tortelli zucca ($10), stuffed with amaretto-infused pumpkin, drizzled with sage-flavored brown butter, and scattered with pine nuts, is luscious and warming, exuding sweetness without ever cloying. It was divine. We loved the parpardelle lepre ($10) too, an old-world specialty (we Americans don't eat much bunny, for some reason) that braises the pale, mild rabbit meat with rosemary and vegetables, then serves it shredded in a creamy light sauce of tomato, herbs, and wine, tossed together with the fat, toothsome noodles. A grinding of black pepper, a sprinkling of freshly grated cheese and this dish was outstanding; we couldn't stop thinking about it later, an exotic beauty. Other house specialties include a black ravioli made with squid ink and stuffed with lobster, and Rino's flash-fried calamari rings tossed with cherry peppers and greens.
We both ordered grilled chops as a third course, after debating the baby quail over polenta, the chicken breast with pancetta, and mare Monte in marinara sauce. A plate of double pork chops cooked in the Pisan style (Maiale pisana, $28) for my partner, marinated and lightly charred, tender, rosy in the center, and dripping rosemary-scented juices, with roasted baby potatoes, tiny zucchini, summer squash, and carrots tossed in butter. And one of the night's specials for me, a thick-cut veal chop (Lombata vitello, $44) grilled and topped with a mix of porcini and button mushrooms, served with the same brilliantly colored quartet of vegetables. Both plates came to the table sizzling, sending up clouds of rosemary-scented steam and the woody scents of wild mushrooms. A veal chop is such a rare event in my life I rarely order them because of the expense and sad way veal is raised in this country, but I love its pale, milky texture and soft fat, and this chop was perfectly cooked; it had exchanged its flavors with the smoky, meaty mushrooms, and the combination seemed both primal and effortlessly elegant.
We hadn't made it through the Rino's list of almost 500 Italian wines, but we did order a glass of effervescent Moscato di Asti, light and floral, to drink with our dessert, a Tuscan cream-filled cake, like a trifle, called zuccotto ($9). The young man who arrived bearing the plate announced with pride that we'd chosen the "best of all the desserts." I believe it. It's served semi-frozen (zuccotto translates as "cardinal's cap," maybe because in the bowl-shaped version it looks like one or like the Duomo in Florence). This one alternated layers of liqueur-soaked sponge cake, frozen cream, chopped hazelnuts and almonds, and grated chocolate. A rich ending to a rich, romantic menu.
It's meals like this that really let you know just how far we've evolved from the African savanna, eh? Still, any lady chimp willing to trade a little nookie for a four-course dinner at Rino's is seriously getting the better part of the deal.