At one point in his youth, chef Gary Wood seriously considered pursuing a career as a cop or a lawyer in Long Island, New York. A move to Florida and a job at a wing joint eventually led to culinary school and a new passion: "I just fell in love [with cooking]."
The chef now heads the line at Ernie's Italian Chophouse
, a midpriced, highly stylized restaurant that opened in January on Federal Highway in Lighthouse Point. The 4,000-square-foot restaurant -- which seats 165 across two dining rooms -- is the vision of Brooklyn native Ernie Patti, a near-nightly presence in the dining room. Wood and Patti in a recent interview at the restaurant emphasized the restaurant's mix of traditional and the unexpected: "classic Italian with a modern twist," as Wood describes it.
Traditional, Italian family-style touches include the Sunday Gravy Dinner, a weekly special in which diners can dig into a "heaping" bowl of paccheri pasta with meatballs, San Marzano tomato sauce, meat-filled gravy, ricotta, and bread. The cost is $30 per person.
Wood -- who has worked as a private chef as well as at various restaurants in South Florida and in the New York area -- said the concept of the "family meal" carries over into the lives of the restaurant's staff. Each day around 4 p.m., the crew gathers together for a meal, giving everyone -- including waiters and line cooks -- a chance to fuel up and listen to Wood lay out the nightly specials and any changes to the menu. Wood looks at it as a way to ground everyone and prepare for a long night of serving dishes like grilled octopus, steak served with roasted garlic
and fried rosemary, macaroni and cheese prepared in a risotto style, and squid-ink fettuccine with shrimp in white wine butter sauce.
One of the restaurant's biggest sellers is the chicken scarpariello for two, "a classical dish" that Wood and crew prepare in a "new" way to get around the protracted cooking time required from the traditional prep. The free-range chicken is brined and flash-fried. "It keeps it juicier," Wood said of the brining. "People really don't think it comes out of the fryer, it's so crispy, so juicy -- it's nothing you would expect coming from a fryer, but we had to speed up the process," Wood said.
Wood -- who worked with Nick Morfogen of 32 East in Delray Beach and counts him as a mentor -- also strives to give a nod to classic Italian preparations that may be somewhat unfamiliar to many Americans. For instance, sauce is served as an accompaniment to pasta instead of being heaped on.
"You're supposed to enjoy the pasta that was cooked right, with the right amount of salt in the water and the right amount of al dente," Wood said. "Sometimes people in America don't understand that. [Our customers] have learned to understand it. Sometimes people ask for an extra bit of sauce, and that's OK."
At the close of the interview, Clean Plate Charlie was given a complimentary taste from the kitchen -- an eggplant stack from the appetizer menu. Thin, lightly breaded slices of eggplant are sandwiched between tomato and topped with a thick cut of mozzarella, which in this case was still warm from its creation. The cheese is made daily in the kitchen: "We never put it in the refrigerator," Patti said.
Ernie's Italian Chophouse is located at 3150 N. Federal Highway, Lighthouse Point. Call 954-781-0910, or visit erniesitalianchophouse.com.
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