It's a decidedly old-school aura at Vinnie's Lobster Bar, an Italian restaurant in Davie that's dedicated to New England's most-beloved cold-water crustacean, the lobster. The setting for this neighborhood haunt is a tiny space, no more than a dozen tables inside and out, located on the outskirts of a Target shopping center.
A family-style staff delivers classic Italian dishes to a packed house several nights a week. It's a little like you stepped into 1950s Little Italy for an evening, an informal type of trattoria where one can dine on pasta and wine, white-tablecloth style, to the din of live music.
Here, amid the suburban sprawl of big-box stores and fast-food chains, with a sprinkling of late-night bars for the nearby college crowd, proprietors Vinnie Napolitano and Rich Donato offer one of the few true sit-down establishments in the area, open for lunch and dinner.
Napolitano has set this kind of scene many times before, starting in 1976 with Vincent's on the Water in Fort Lauderdale. That was the first of many establishments he opened in South Florida, following a decades-long career begun in the Bronx, the northernmost borough of New York City. The one thing each place had in common: an upscale concept featuring continental fare, seafood, or Italian -- or a combination.
Vinnie's is much the same, but with a lobster twist. In 2012, Napolitano opened his version of an old-school Italian trattoria with a well-populated list of Italian classics and a focus on seafood. He courts an older crowd in this slice of Broward, located in the Lakeside Town Shops plaza off Stirling Road just west of Florida's Turnpike. Napolitano created the menu and can often be found in the kitchen.
Moderately priced and dimly lit, with a quiet outdoor seating area overlooking the shopping center parking lot, it's the type of establishment where nearby residents gather in various states of attire to mingle. On Wednesday and Friday, they come for the live music, says Napolitano. "Young or old, everyone loves lobster, and I know how to cook them," says Napolitano. "And we sell a lot of them."
They sell more than 500 Maine lobsters each month, according to Napolitano. That number fluctuates depending on the time of the year and what special the restaurant is running, he explains. At the moment, it's twin lobster tails (or two whole Maine lobsters) for $29.99.
See also: Vinnie's Lobster Bar (Photos)
On the night we arrive, there's a clamor of noisy conversation and a packed bar. A trio of tables -- an older crowd of family and friends -- provides much of the raucous enthusiasm.
The meal begins with an awkward exchange with our server, who seems more annoyed than pleased by our newbie questions. We're told our best bet is to order a glass of Coastal Vines, the house wine. It's the only alternative to the pricey bottle menu, the short list of standard beer, and a basic liquor lineup.
For dinner, you'll order either Italian, seafood, or lobster. There's zuppa di pesce, linguini vongole, and shrimp scampi. If you're looking for appetizers, the menu opens with more than a dozen including Italian specialties like baccala salad, zuppa di clams, and eggplant rollatini. Some -- like beer-battered asparagus spears and ahi tuna -- feel misplaced.
I'm eager to try the scungilli salad, an Italian-American staple. The cold-water whelks are usually served chilled as an insalata, as they are here, or cooked in a marinara sauce. The meat is dense, chewy, and mostly sweet.
Our server steers us from this pick, however, and on her recommendation, we order baked escargots. They arrive shriveled, sunken beneath a watery pool of butter and coarsely chopped garlic. It makes me wonder why the scungilli wasn't the better choice when -- on a subsequent visit -- our waitress announced it was made fresh to order and it arrived in a beautifully composed salad.
Lobster bisque should be a no-brainer here -- it's a lobster bar, after all. So it's a good indicator of craftsmanship in the kitchen. There was a time you could find it on almost any menu. Most recipes follow a strict two-day prep process involving a strained routine that includes more than 25 ingredients, from flambéed brandy and sautéed lobster shells to a boatload of fresh lobster meat.
During a busy dinner swell, this bisque resembles a slop of porridge instead. It's dull and after a few spoonfuls reveals congealed clots and no discernible chunks of lobster meat. Yet again, when ordered amid a lunchtime lull, the bisque is markedly better -- a blushing shade of pink with a more robust flavor.
These dishes are a hit-and-miss prelude to Vinnie's otherwise solid list of main attractions, a selection of familiar Italian-American fare like pasta and meatballs, linguini fra diavolo, and chicken parmigiana. It's also where the lobster -- served several ways -- makes a main appearance.
The entrée to order isn't the crab-stuffed twin lobster tails or even the lobster special but the lobster papardelle à la brandy. A mountainous pile of poached lobster (claw and knuckle) meat is balanced atop a tangled mass of the wide, heavy noodles. A substantial portion, it's served beneath a parsley-flecked tomato cream sauce, a dense butter and cream base accented with lobster stock and a hint of brandy, a welcome change from the cliché vodka sauce in its ability to balance richness with acidity.
"This is a smaller restaurant [than my others], but it's very unique," says Napolitano. "The music, the atmosphere, the food -- it's something that people keep coming back for."
This may be so and most certainly seems to be for Vinnie's regular patrons, those familiar with the staff, who know when the specials are on and when the live music is playing, but for a first-time diner, the food -- and the service -- is inconsistent.
Sure, two Maine lobster tails priced under $30 can feel like a steal, but Vinnie's has a few loose ends to tie up to become a lobster bar you're anticipating.
Vinnie's Lobster Bar is located at 5810 S. University Drive, Davie. Open Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and Sunday from 3 to 10:30 p.m. Call 954-680-3323, or visit vinnieslobsterbarflorida.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.