It was a Friday night, and my fiancée and I were getting ready to go out to SoLita, an Italian-themed restaurant and "ultra lounge" on Las Olas. I rummaged through my dresser drawer and pulled out a gold chain I hadn't worn since high school. I slipped it around my neck and unbuttoned the top button of my collared shirt.
"Yo!" I called to Danielle in a very bad Italian-American accent. "How does this look ova' here?"
She peeked out of the bathroom and shook her head. "No, you can't go out like that," she said, reaching over to rebutton my shirt. "Nobody does that."
"Hey, hands off, sister!" I said, backing up a few steps. I paused for a second and then gave her a sly look. "Now we just gotta get youse into somethin' a bit more revealing."
"You are such a child!" she said, laughing. Then she slammed the bathroom door behind her.
Hey, you can't blame a wise guy for trying. I mean, if we were going out to SoLita (which stands for South of Little Italy), I wanted to make sure we fit in. If that meant flashing gold chains, chest hair, and a little cleavage, so be it.
OK, so maybe I stereotyped. But the big, brash Italian-American shtick is enjoying a renaissance — especially in South Florida, home to so many ex-New Yorkers (and New Jerseyites) that you can practically call it the city's sixth borough. There are plenty of miniature Snookis and J-WOWWs running around tanning themselves unnatural shades of orange, and they've got to eat somewhere. To cater to them all, it seems a new Italian restaurant-slash-nightclub has opened every other week. These restaurants — like SoLita on Las Olas, Chris Michael's in Boca Raton, and Martorano's Italian-American Kitchen at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino — each offer a clubby vibe to match their outsized portions of meatballs and gravy.
At the center of this scene is Steve Martorano, the de facto kingpin of Italian-American dining in South Florida. The South Philly DJ/sandwich man first opened his restaurant on Oakland Park Boulevard in 1993, and since then, he's reinvented a genre. At his restaurants, celebrities cavort with dudes in wife beaters, and droning dance music thumps on as waiters hoist pasta by the cartload. The formula is so successful that in February, longtime Café Martorano employee Alan Myers decided it was time to break from the boss and host his own party. He teamed up with another Martorano mainstay, chef Anthony "Radar" Risoli, and opened SoLita in the former Mark's spot on Las Olas.
When Danielle and I finally arrived around 8 that Friday night, the party was already in full swing. If Café Martorano's is the big papa, SoLita is the teenaged daughter who leaves the house in a cardigan and slips into a cocktail dress in the car. The purple SoLita sign out front was like catnip for the firm and attractive: rippling dudes with picture-perfect fades were decked in buttoned-downs with collars swung wide. Their counterparts, ladies in tight-fitting dresses, showed more skin than Cinemax's entire late-night programming bloc. They all strutted through the cramped foyer, flaunting and boozing at the same time.
We ducked our way toward the reception desk, navigating around staffers making beelines through the crowd. The male waiters, decked in sharp black shirts with purple ties and long aprons, seemed on a mission to get to their lounge-style tables in SoLita's main dining room. The waitresses were cinched into black and purple corsets so form-fitting that each looked like a life-sized version of Dominatrix Barbie. One waitress, a blond with girlish freckles, paused to rub her aching back by the hostess stand when one of the gold chain-wearing customers walked up to her.
"Hey, lady!" the muscled dude yelled to her, motioning at her corseted chest. "If I had to carry those things around all day, my back would hurt too!"
I looked over at my fiancée. "Still think I'm stereotyping?"
SoLita doesn't take reservations for parties of fewer than six, so when we put our names in, we were asked to wait at the packed bar, which was lined with black granite, mirrors, and flat-screen televisions. As we waited shoulder to shoulder with other diners, bartenders served a host of femme specialty cocktails. Drink options included a few beers and a two-page wine list full of Italian reds and whites. We decided to order an espresso martini made with chocolate liqueur ($12), and as our bodies filled with booze, we started to feel like we fit in.
I have no idea how SoLita's hostesses keep track of who's waiting for tables at that bar. They take your name, but the restaurant is so loud with the thrum of dance music that no one could ever hear it called out. Somehow, the hostess managed to find us — after about an hour — and offer us a table outside (another annoyance: I was forced to settle my tab at the bar first, as the tenders refuse to transfer checks). She whisked us past the velvet curtains and grays and purples of the restaurant and onto sidewalk seating that was cut off from the street by a row of hedges, setting us down into a dark, plush bench facing Las Olas Boulevard. The breezy, romantic spot felt pleasantly removed from the club music and chaos inside.