In every critic's life a moment emerges when she realizes that her carefully refined opinions — judicious and elegant as they may be — aren't worth doo-doo. The revelation hits with the force of a piano shoved off a third-floor balcony; you look down at those shiny, grand preconceptions in smithereens on the sidewalk, all the music gone out of them, and understand that something has ended. This critic (let's for the sake of argument call her a food writer) might as well toss in the tea towel at this point. She could be rebuilding shotgun shacks in the Ninth Ward or mowing down poppies in Afghanistan or teaching deaf children to sign the lyrics to "We Are Family"; instead, she realizes, she's spent the best years of her life fussing about whether the artichokes on her flounder francese came from a can.
To wit: I don't think Limoncello Trattoria, a little trattoria and pizzeria wedged into the bustle and brawl of Himmarshee in downtown Fort Lauderdale, is a very good restaurant. I have reasons. But it doesn't matter what I think. Limoncello is hopping along just fine without me; it will continue to hop along and make lots of people happy. Bloggers and other restaurant writers have called the place charming and quaint and delicious and romantic. In fact, the pro- voices are running against the anti- at about 10-to-1. So where does that leave me and my fancy expertise?
The two young men who joined me for dinner at Limoncello last week, palates corrupted by cigarettes and brains fine-tuned to lofty interpretations of French postmodernism, mouthing beautiful sentences structured on the rhythms of Marcus (Greil, not Aurelius) and Lester (Bangs, not Brown), two handsome kids with a few illusions still intact and, even more disturbing, terribly in love — well, they liked Limoncello a lot. They thought it was delicious! They would even spend their own money instead of mine to go back again, although maybe they'd opt for the veal rather than the flounder next time.
Limoncello has found its target audience, a semi-exclusive club of ravenous youngsters who hang out at Himmarshee and don't want to spend a penny more than $14.95 for a plate of spaghetti carbonara; people who expect to slope in earlyish for happy hour or at the stroke of midnight for a tomato pie and then be off, moving with a newly energized, Limoncello-fueled step through a world that is bright and noisy and open — to the book-club meeting next door or to see whatever's showing at Sunrise Theater; to do body shots at Coyote Ugly or lose a bar fight; to run home to check in on MySpace or to trawl for rough trade in the nearest public bathroom — whatever. I am not one of them.
And you? Maybe you are and maybe you aren't a Limoncello Trattoria person. I here offer a few details about the place to help you gauge where you fit in the greater scheme:
The service is jolly. Walter Oliva, the barrel-shaped proprietor, appears to be a genuinely kind and caring man with nearly infinite patience for the way certain people can place an order, backtrack, dither, ask 100 questions, and finally decide they're not in the mood for chicken after all. He also has a superhuman tolerance for large families with young children. He cares enough to ask if the music is too loud (it is) and if the mozzarella is good (it isn't). He'll cheerfully turn down the music, but there's not much he can do with the cheese.
The menu is inexpensive Italian. Italian as in: veal Marsala, gnocchi with pesto, lobster ravioli, pizza, fettuccine Alfredo. As in, the most familiar and undistinguished Italian-American dishes anybody could ask for, and ask they do. Limoncello is as far from the Italian of crudo, pork fat on toast, fried zucchini flowers, fruit mostarda, or squid ink tagliolini as Batali is from Boyardee.
The place is wet. The air-conditioning vent emits a steady, slow drip, sometimes upon the top of your head, sometimes just barely missing the top of your head. Every water or tea or cocktail glass set down on your bare wooden table sweats as desperately as Marion Bartoli in her final set at Wimbledon. By the end of the meal, your spread looks like a map of the Everglades, and your humid coif is curled like a poodle's. Those who are madly in love will hardly notice, since they're likely to be damp anyway. Otherwise, bring your snorkel.
The food is frozen. Or canned. Or bottled. If you're deep into a discussion about how no philosopher since Karl Marx has penned an idea capable of setting a worldwide paradigm shift in motion and if you are intent upon putting away at least half the 4,000 daily calories required to maintain your 170 I.Q. and your 28-inch waistline, then the frozen/canned/bottled ingredients you're swallowing probably aren't going to ruin your night. But if you're like me, a little dumb and foggy and fat, a person who some years ago garage-saled her grad-school collection of Bataille, Barthes, and Baudrillard and whose greatest intellectual pleasures now have everything to do with what's for dessert, then you might conclude that nobody at Limoncello has spent much time sourcing painstakingly fresh ingredients. Basically, I'm thinking, the Cheney Brothers Food Service truck pulls up and unloads.
Thus, your dishes will likely be filling but uninspired. Caesar salad ($8.95) takes a grand old classic and offers the paint-by-numbers version: lettuce tossed in bottled caesar dressing with a lot of croutons and cheese. It's only when you recall the original tableside preparation made with raw egg, anchovies, Worcestershire sauce, and the essence of garlic rubbed into a wooden bowl that you realize exactly how far this famous salad has devolved. An antipasto of prosciutto with mozzarella ($11) was edible — it's hard to screw up imported prosciutto. But the hunk of mozzarella that came with it was unappealingly bland and rubbery, and if you've gotten used to the taste of fresh mozz (since so many restaurants are making their own these days and so many gourmet grocers are selling it), your sensibility is going to rebel. Burrata, this ain't. As for carpaccio di manzo ($12), our raw beef was soggy and listless, clearly too long frozen and sliced too thick (you should be able to read your watch through a proper carpaccio) and sprinkled with greasy shreds of inferior-quality Parmesan. But our young lovers cooed and ahh'd. "Why does anybody ever bother to cook beef at all?" they enthused. I know why. And so does the USDA.
There's plenty of bread. And garlicky olive oil to dip it in.
Limoncello serves a most generous portion of spaghetti carbonara. I haven't seen carbonara on any menu in ages — the ultimate comfort food, breakfast dressed for dinner. Limoncello's version cooks the spaghetti al dente, tossed in lots of delicious bacon fat and cooked egg with a generous grinding of black pepper and Parmesan. Doing this at home, I might top it with a soft-yolked fried egg (though any chef who tried this in a public restaurant would probably get arrested).
On the other hand, a dish of scaloppini Marsala ($19.95) employed a pinkish piece of cardboard-thin veal that might as well have been cut from a Kate Spade handbag for all the flavor it had. Extra-sweet Marsala sauce couldn't save it.
One of the boys and I nearly came to blows over the flounder with artichokes (a special, $24). He pronounced it delish; I thought it wretched. And there you have the limitations of culinary criticism, a profession in which few friendships long survive. For me, those canned marinated artichokes and capers in the "francese" (oh sauce beloved of wedding receptions and Rotary Club banquets!) were a blow I couldn't recover from. For him, they added just the right note of piquancy (er, tinny sourness) to the moist and flavorful (um, mushy and insipid) fish.
My friends had the wisdom to skip dessert: What could be sweeter than gazing into your beloved's limpid eyes? But I dragged ahead and ordered the only one available that evening — a tiramisu ($6.95) that tasted as if it too had been frozen too long, basically just a bowl of espresso-flavored cream. I won't be doing that again anytime soon.
So here's the question we're facing, friends. Are you young, hungry, brilliant, slim, philosophically inclined? The sort of person who knows that there are many questions the universe has yet to answer and that the tenderness of the veal scaloppini at a middling trattoria in Fort Lauderdale is certainly not one of the major ones? Or are you just the opposite: somebody whose dearest wish is to dine as far from a leaky air conditioning vent as possible? Assume your positions. You know where you stand.