Fort Lauderdale's Valentino's most striking attribute, aside from chef-owner Giovanni Rocchio's impressive menu of homemade pastas and high-end victuals, is its kitchen. Open to the full view of the dining room like a stage to a rapt audience, the entire evening unfolds like a silent movie.
The performance begins well before dinner, however, with the routine of daily prep: the click and flare of a gas burner, and just like that the scent of melting chocolate and sautéed mushrooms (ingredients for two of the evening's specials) fills the air.
Here, refined palates can take refuge. The restaurant specializes in true culinary ambition. Rocchio isn't just some self-important chef with an impressive résumé; he's a culinary savant with a passion that runs so hot, it's helped to propel his Fort Lauderdale eatery into a class of its own.
Rather than grab a white-linen table beside the panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows or sink into one of the oversized velveteen couches, we opt for the action seats propped along the prep counter. Here, we're greeted with a palate-prepping amuse-bouche and a basket of Rocchio's own ciabatta, foccacia, brioche, and filone. Then we sit back and take in the show as plates are finished before our eyes: a sprig of fresh thyme and parsley here, a dusting of cheese there, or a generous helping of freshly grated black truffle.
At the center of the action, Rocchio seems at peace, telling the story of how he opened one of the city's most distinguished restaurants and continues to be among South Florida's most impassioned chefs.
Cooking, it seems, is in Rocchio's blood; he was born into the restaurant industry, starting with his family's pizzeria, Zialisa, which opened in 1966 in Edison, New Jersey. It was here, at 7 years old, that Rocchio first learned the ropes of the kitchen, washing dishes and helping the staff behind the scenes.
The family -- his mother hailing from Abruzzo, Italy, and his father from Naples -- relocated to South Florida in the mid-'70s, and opened a new restaurant in Lauderhill. His father named it Valentino, after the famous silent film star Rudolph Valentino. More formal than the pizzeria, it was a white-tablecloth trattoria that served favorite Italian dishes like lasagna, veal piccata, and eggplant Parmesan.
When his father retired in 2004, Rocchio carried on the family tradition with his own iteration, preserving the name Valentino. When he opened in 2006, the idea was to push the envelope and expose South Florida to elevated Italian cuisine, he says. Half of his first menu was made up of his father's most popular dishes, kept on for the regular patrons, entrées like veal scallopini and chicken liver with onions. Within a few years, however, Rocchio had overhauled the entire menu, introducing dishes like tripe, sweetbreads, quail, turbot, and foie gras.
"My attitude towards pushing the envelope was that I didn't care, and maybe that's why [this] worked so well," says Rocchio. "I wanted to bring an evolution in Italian fare to South Florida, and I had all these ideas. It was an exciting and thrilling time for me."
Although he isn't classically trained, Rocchio exhibits an extraordinary gift that he's developed through plenty of hard work. To hone his skill, he traveled extensively, tasting his way across Italy and Europe for inspiration. Rocchio also spent close to a decade in New York City, working his way through the ranks in some of Manhattan's most esteemed kitchens.
There was Picholine, where he learned the basics of French cooking; Union Square Café, where he was taught a healthy appreciation for international cuisine; and, of course, Fiamma, one of the first restaurants to take an upscale approach to Italian fare. It was also where he first learned to make pasta by hand from a couple of Mexican girls who had mastered the technique from an 80-year-old Italian woman.
"That experience was life-changing for me," said Rocchio. "And today, it's what [Valentino] is known for."
Today, pasta remains the heart of Valentino. While machines can mix fresh dough and roll out sheets, Rocchio takes the time to mix, form, shape, and cook all the restaurant's pasta. It's part of the daily ritual and therefore not uncommon to find him hard at work, covered in flour from head to toe. The fusilli, he says, is especially demanding, a hand-rolled pasta that is so labor-intensive that it once gave him a bad case of tendonitis.
The menu hasn't changed much in the past few years, with the exception of several innovative additions compliments of a new chef de cuisine, Jimmy Everett. Still, most of Rocchio's greatest hits have become set in stone, each one an interpretation of a dish he's had on his travels across Italy and Europe. The resulting recipes are not so much borrowed as inspired.
"Food is like music: It's all been done already," says Rocchio. "The trick is to take something and make it new again."
Specials rotate seasonal ingredients, change weekly, and demonstrate Rocchio's dedication to serving fresh, experimental cuisine while never forgoing the classics or regulars' favorites.
The ham and eggs ravioli is a house favorite you won't find on the regular menu. One of Rocchio's own creations, the pasta can be whipped up à la minute if you ask politely. Each square is a large pasta pocket stuffed with a spinach-flecked dry ricotta cheese and a single duck egg yolk cooked in a gentle, rolling boil before being plated with shaved black truffle and diced pancetta beneath a light veil of white truffle cream sauce. A lonely toasted crust of bread sits beside, and you'll understand why as you cut in for your first bite, setting free a deluge of molten, runny egg yolk.
When it comes to pasta, Valentino is most famous for its casoncelli, wonton-shaped pasta stuffed with a rich veal and pancetta filling in a creamy brown butter sauce. In a single evening, the restaurant will pump out dozens of portions. Others return time and time again for a taste of the butternut squash tortelli, inspired by a meal at the Michelin-starred Ristorante dal Pescatore in Northern Italy. They're bright and fresh, creamy pockets singing under a simple, thin sauce of melted brown sugar.
In recent months, Rocchio has stepped back from crafting new dishes to focus on his new concept, One Door East, breaking ground this month. The chef declares he's ready to take on the world of tapas with a globally inspired theme that will highlight Spanish, Asian, and American cuisine. Appropriately named, the restaurant will be located in the space next door to Valentino, with a convenient pass-through that will connect both establishments.
"I'm always learning," says Rocchio. "I want to educate my customers on what real Italian food is. A good chef is only as good as his ingredients, and I want people to know they are getting the best. So when people come here to celebrate or have a special night, that's exactly what they'll get: something special."
Valentino is located at 620 S. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Hours are Monday through Thursday 6 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. to midnight. Call 954-523-5767, or visit valentinocucinaitaliana.com.
Nicole Danna is a food blogger covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.