The Sardelli family spent five years and their life savings to buy an empty lot and build a four-story building just east of Federal Highway and steps from Hollywood Beach. From the outside, the $1.6 million Sardelli Italian Steakhouse looks like an Italian villa plucked from the countryside and dropped on the beach, complete with sunset-orange stucco walls and Greek-style columns.
Despite its opulence, we nearly drove by it at night, squinting and straining to see any sign that would indicate we were in the right place, just as you might on the way to visit a cousin. Aside from a valet sitting out front, there wasn't one. The restaurant is unmarked.
"Do I look like a restaurant or a home?" Fulvio Sardelli Jr. challenged me to answer when we spoke later by phone.
Easy question. The homestyle feeling began as soon as we pulled open an ornate, heavy wooden door and walked into a dimly lit, 35-seat dining room, the smells of garlic and the sound of sizzling steak emanating from the open kitchen on the far wall. A square bar jutted out from the side. Worn copper pots and pans hung above the serving window and on walls. The second floor has a wine cellar, the third has a private kitchen, and the top floor has a bar and outdoor seating for events.
Blue window curtains and small glass chandeliers help light the main room. Votive candles on each table provide just enough glow to read the menu. Two large, silver-framed mirrors help open the dining room while keeping it cozy.
The Sardelli family — Fulvio Sr., Carmen, and Fulvio Jr. — have been feeding South Florida for decades, ever since the elder Fulvio opened Franco's Pizzeria in Davie in the mid-1980s. The name was later changed to Fulvio's, and then the family moved it to downtown Hollywood as Fulvio's 1900. Fulvio Sr. runs his namesake restaurant. This second, more-intimate restaurant opened in January.
Today, Carmen Sardelli serves as the hostess and Junior runs the kitchen and chats with guests. The younger Fulvio, 35, has been working in his family's restaurants as long as he can remember. "My first job was dishwashing, then rolling garlic rolls in the kitchen," he says. "Then I found my passion in the kitchen."
The homestyle feeling, however, was derailed when we looked at the portions and prices. All of the steaks are more than $40. One large, pale-white sea scallop cost $15. It arrived perfectly crisped in butter with a pleasant bite and creamy texture, the lone mollusk atop an emerald-green almond and parsley pesto sauce and a velvety parsnip purée. But a server even joked at the price by asking us with a wink if we wanted another as he cleared the plates from our table. We were tempted but resisted.
A savory raviolo ($15) came as one large flying-saucer-shaped ravioli topped with brown butter sauce and minuscule cubes of pancetta. If you come here and order only one thing, order this. Folded inside house-made pasta were ricotta cheese, spinach, nutmeg, salt, pepper, and Parmesan. The kicker was the soft-cooked egg tucked inside. When cut into, the yolk mixed with the brown butter sauce to create a rich, decadent bite.
Sardelli's does a fine job of living up to the steak house in its name, yet many of the Italian classics, like the raviolo, overshadow the meat. A 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye steak ($49) was cooked precisely to medium rare and arrived succulent with crisp grill marks. A variety of house-made steak sauces was offered for $4 apiece. Among the choices were Barolo red wine, the classic Italian tomato sauce Pizzaiola, and a green peppercorn.
Sides run about $10, including rapini with Italian sausage. This broccoli, also called broccoli rabe, is more bitter than the traditional spears. It was chopped into small cylinders, sautéed with olive oil and garlic and crumbled sausage on top.
Fulvio Jr. stresses the care his family puts into the food, beginning with season-conscious sourcing. "Everything depends on the time of the year," he says. "We use stone crab; we use Key West snapper. My parents still drive down to Homestead and have relationships with farmers."
One off-menu item he bragged about (but we didn't try) was his smoked potato gnocchi. "We boil the potatoes and then smoke them," Sardelli says, "and serve it with sea scallops, local shrimp, and calamari with [a sauce of] garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and roasted tomatoes."
Sardelli's makes more than a half-dozen pastas, from black tagliatelle to emerald-green papardelle, in-house. A half order (all pastas are available as such) of veal agnolotti ($14) brought four rounds of tender-looking pasta topped with sliced sautéed mushrooms. Yet what we found on one of two visits were hard, half-cooked pastas with a lukewarm filling that should have been the highlight of the meal.
Also a letdown was the duck breast ($32), served with sautéed spinach and a black-cherry sauce. The sauce hit the perfect balance of savory and sweet, bumped up by fresh cherries on the plate, but the duck was undercooked.
When the younger Sardelli was in the house, dishes were spectacular. An eggplant stack ($14) showed off the skill of the kitchen through perfectly crisp disks of fried eggplant. Those were stacked with creamy mozzarella cheese and sweet, bright-red tomatoes. It was a classic Italian move: allowing the ingredients to shine nearly on their own.
Although service here is fast and courteous — water was always refilled before requested — the kitchen seemed slow, particularly when Fulvio Jr. was not around. On both visits, my guest and I waited more than 20 minutes between some courses.
The long wait was intended, Sardelli said later. "We're not trying to turn and burn," he explained. "It is supposed to be an experience that may last an hour or two."
Sardelli Jr. said regulars make up about 80 percent of his business, and most of them don't even bother to look at the menu anymore. "They come in and say, 'Fulvio, cook for me,' " he says, "and I cook them four-, five-, six-, and seven-course meals."
Sigh. If only our wallets would allow us to become some of those regulars.