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.
As long as it takes to get a seat at SoLita, the service is exponentially quicker. Our waiter was fast but never hurried and wore a friendly smile throughout. He set us up in record time with our appetizers, including a rustic beet salad with goat cheese and walnuts ($12). In it, red and white beets were roasted and cut into thick al dente quarters, while the cheese and nuts had been oddly spackled along the sides of the bowl. Still, it was earthy and delicious. An order of shrimp brandy ($14) had a more straightforward presentation, with lush, tender shrimp sitting in a pool of basil-infused brandy cream sauce. The only problem was the stale pesto croutons that could have doubled as doorstops.
While we plunged into our starters, a waiter delivered to the couple next to us a fish so large that it looked like it could feed a platoon — or at least three or four hungry dudes in Ed Hardy shirts. The fish was dressed with a mountain of flat-leaf parsley, roasted tomatoes, and red onions. So I copied him.
It seemed like an odd choice: picking bones out of a whole roasted bronzini ($28) while scantily dressed folks canoodled around me. Still, I couldn't resist the draw of the fish. When it arrived, it was even more impressive than I'd thought. The bronzini (Mediterranean sea bass) had been cooked in SoLita's wood oven along with onions, tomatoes, artichokes, and lemon, and the mixture formed a sort of alluring broth on the plate. The whole thing was lavished with parsley and olive oil, which, along with the toasted lemons, created a perfume more intoxicating than any in the restaurant that night. So what if I had to pick through a few bones? Fish this tender and flavorful is worth it.
Also worth it: Danielle's order of delicate spinach ravioli draped in velvety Mascarpone cheese sauce ($18), tender and rich. And despite a rather pungent odor, so was a side dish of Brussels sprouts deeply caramelized with vinegar and chili ($6). They ain't exactly hookup food, these smelly sprouts. But then again, neither is garlicky pasta, and that didn't seem to be stopping anyone. I boxed up about half of my massive fish and passed on dessert — we'd had all the eye candy we could stand for the night.
I wanted to check out a few of SoLita's other dishes, so I returned on a slower weeknight with some coworkers to scope the scene. This time, the restaurant was far less crowded, its palatial white leather banquettes and lounge-style couches virtually empty.
In that quiet room, the clubby vibe almost became comical. Our mega-Italian waiter — obviously used to screaming over the din of drunken babes and loud party music — practically yelled to the table as he recited the specials. Funnier still was that he couldn't seem to finish a sentence without barking the term "youse guys." Still, "us guys" couldn't complain about the meatballs. Even at $6 a pop, the moist rounds were damned near perfect. So was a chilled seafood salad dressed in olive oil ($14), the shrimp, calamari, and mussels receiving a zingy kick from a squeeze of roasted lemon. Every few minutes or so, our waiter would appear between mouthfuls to offer a cocktail and suggest we "chill" for a bit. Shoot, maybe he was lonely.
We were having a good time chilling, actually, until our entrées came out. A bowl of bucatini all' Amatriciana ($18) featured thick, hollow, spaghetti-like pasta but was bogged down with an overly rich sauce of near-burnt onions. It didn't help that the pancetta crisps throughout had rendered it an oily mess. Pan-seared snapper ($24) was better in conception, with a thick cut of crisp-fleshed fish mounted over a mound of plush farro (large-kernel wheat grains sort of like a rustic version of bulgur). But the ultrafresh tomatoes and light wheat were marred by overcooked fish.
No dish better exemplified the whole of SoLita than the veal sorrentino ($24). Hidden somewhere under a messy pile of cheese, tomatoes, and prosciutto was a piece of veal, pounded flat and seared nicely but still not quite tender. It could've been a fine dish if executed with more grace or restraint. Instead, it was ham-handed and loud, food designed to pair with thumping beats and a raging sex drive. Maybe that's passable when the lights are dim and the crowd is wild. But here, midweek, it was sort of sad. And no amount of gold chains was going to fix that.