Maybe I need to up my dose of Ritalin. All I can think about at the moment is gnocchi. And it isn't like I haven't eaten gnocchi before; the stuff is baby food, the ubiquitous, yawn-inducing wallflower of Italian menus from here to East Brunswick it turns up at every party like the sad-sack cousin you have to invite because your Mama said so.
A bountiful blond in transparent sweatpants sidles up next to me. She is wearing no underpants. The lovely navel revealed between her cutoff T-shirt and the band of her sweats is an inny. I'm looking at that navel and wondering what it is they're doing in the kitchen at Vic & Angelo's Coal Oven to make their gnocchi come out so pillowy and tender. They must have some secret proportion of flour to potato or maybe an entirely new species of spud, developed in secret in the Vic & Angelo's laboratories a monster hybrid that produces the ideal dumpling when tossed into a pot of boiling water. Maybe they're using the same New York water they purportedly fly in to make their pizza. Does Manhattan H20 have the same leavening effect on pasta as it does on coal-fired pie?
Impossible that you haven't heard: Vic & Angelo's is the new David Manero production in Palm Beach Gardens. Manero, you may remember, burns through trendy restaurants the way a Kennedy woos starlets it's all Camelot romance and then a ruined reputation. Aw, that's not really true. Manero conceived and managed the glittery, celeb-attracting Sopra in Delray Beach some years ago, a restaurant that should have done well but didn't after Manero left the partnership, the place went downhill fast. He also opened Shore (seafood) and Gotham City (steak-house supper club) in Delray Beach, both immensely popular with single ladies of a certain age, both intriguingly designed by his wife, Lynn, who knows how to work miracles with drapes and lighting fixtures. (The other mega-restaurateur in these parts, Burt Rapoport, took Gotham off Manero's hands in December.)
Manero is the kind of restaurant guy who makes me twitch with irritation: I can't stand the grand openings full of bikini-clad nymphets zooming around on Vespas. And the relentless hype (he's partnering with Danny DeVito on a place in Miami yawn) turns my stomach. But dammit if he doesn't know how to turn out a flawless bowl of gnocchi. Or at least to hire somebody who knows how to. The food at Vic & Angelo's is so wonderful that it makes all my other niggling criticisms look petty and mean. So what if the mega-monster chessboard on the patio is a silly bit of hokum? Who cares if everybody in the place is screaming at the top of his lungs through mouthfuls of frito misto? Do I really need to see the guys in the men's room washing their hands through the double-sided sink when I'm in the ladies loo? What if I need to adjust my G-string won't the dudes be able to see?
But I can't fault a restaurant that's going to start me out with a paddle-shaped wooden board upon which thinly sliced sheets of coppa ($7) and finocchiona ($7) have been tenderly arranged. The cured meats are imported from Italy, and they are utterly rich and strange the coppa, seasoned pork shoulder, is a particular revelation. It has a slightly lemony flavor layered into an earthy, heady richness, barnyardy and mellow. It's unbelievably sexy.
The finocchiona is a fennel-laced salami, a little more familiar but no less delicious. You can accompany these, if you like, with an assortment of artisanal formaggi, a choice of three cheeses for $12 or six for $21. We choose a pecorino grand cru, fontina val d'Aosta, and gorgonzola dolce; they arrive with a trio of sweet accompaniments honey laced with balsamic vinegar, black cherries in syrup, peach preserves. Our waiter doesn't tell us which bit of sweet goes with which cheese is it random? Nor does he advise us in what order to eat the cheeses (you should start mild and end strong, as with a winetasting, but these aren't arranged in order). Still, we're smart kids, and we figure it out. The silky fontina pairs marvelously with the tart cherries. The pecorino is delicious with honey. And the potent gorgonzola makes an admirable partner for peach preserves, which calm that hyperactive cheese right down. If there's a more blissful way to begin a meal than with cured meats and interesting cheeses, I don't know it, and I don't want to.
P.R. people have been making a lot of noise about V&A's pizza, made with pure New York City water, evidently pumped in through miles of magical underground pipes laid by cheerful elfin folk from a secret recipe passed down by Manero's beloved grandmama. Uh-huh. Well, anyway. We ordered the version topped with clams, Reggiano parmesan, oregano, garlic, and apple wood bacon ($17). They bake it in a coal-fired oven "at 900 degrees," and it comes out as a rough rectangle heavily dusted with semolina in the pleasantest way. Your waiter squeezes a lemon over the top of it.
Here's the verdict, and no criticism of Manero's nonna is intended I'm sure she was an excellent lady. I found the crust just a tad heavy and not blackened nearly enough for an oven that's supposedly pushing 1,000 Fahrenheit. That crust had little heft and few bubbles, and I wouldn't even call it particularly crisp. Its nutty flavor, though, was first-rate, and the mess on top was magnifico. Chewy chopped clams coated with parmesan, sweet smoky roasted garlic, bits of apple wood bacon, flecks of cooked thyme and fresh oregano scattered on after the pizza had been pulled from the oven wow! There are seven specialty pizzas, and they all sound delicious (finger peppers/salami/sweet sausage/aged provolone looked particularly promising). If it isn't the best pizza in Palm Beach County, it's a helluva brave attempt.
And the pan-fried rainbow trout ($19) with escarole, white beans, and sweet sausage could not put a fin wrong. Here you have an absolutely classic Italian home-style dish the skin fried to a delectable crispness, the flesh inside white and moist, beans and escarole muddling together in buttery sauce, a dash of lemon to sharpen the flavors and cut through all that butter. Ooooooh yesssss. The kitchen at V&A's likes to add sweet sausage to a whole bunch of things, and of this I approve. That sausage appeared also in my bowl of gnocchi ($19), along with chunks of moist chicken breast, sun-dried tomato slivers, bits of asparagus, and, of course, the gnocchi itself plump potato dumplings, soft as the inside of your darling's thigh, that seemed to defy gravity. They were tossed in a cream-full roasted garlic and sherry sauce. Also unbeatable: a plate of veal scaloppini ($24), pounded thin but still meaty, with the thickest, richest, most divine mushroom risotto and a side of broccoli rabe to foil the heaviness of the dish with its gently bitter tang. You smear your fork around in the Marsala sauce and the generous shreds of parmigiana and you are one happy camper. The portions are huge.
You may have noticed that prices at V&A's are reasonable. You can sit at the outdoor bar and have pizza, small plates, and quartinos (little carafes, holding about a glass and a half) of all kinds of terrific Italian wines and make yourself quite a meal on the cheap. Or you can do the whole production inside, watching the chefs kick it inside the glassed-in kitchen (white tile, flames, copper pots), do the whole three courses, and not come out noticeably poorer than you were a couple of hours before. Even piling on the desserts we sampled the gelato ($9), affogato ($5), and zeppoles ($9) we felt like we'd gotten a bargain. I wanted to taste the olive oil gelato, but our waitress said they weren't making it anymore the Gardens gamines apparently didn't like it. A shame. We drowned our disappointment with a basket of zeppoles: fried dough (like beignets) light as air, hot as hell, and really dreamy dipped in caramel sauce and sweet cream. The affogato, a vanilla sorbet drenched in espresso, was a delicious, dark little joke.
Then we went home and treated ourselves to another dark little joke, tossing in a DVD to watch Laurent Naouri, dressed as a gigantic fly, simulate operatic cunnilingus on Natalie Dessay in Orphée aux enfers. She nailed her high note and her climax dead on.
But I was still wondering how they made that gnocchi.