I've got an idea for a new reality show. It's called The Real Housewives of Boca Raton, and it could be filmed almost exclusively inside Vivo Partenza.
Think about it: Those "Real Housewives" shows are all about wealthy socialites living out their dramatic lives. And I can't imagine a better backdrop for drama or luxury than Vivo. Those creamy taupe curtains, the palatial banquettes, the swaths of glass and marble — it's like a sultan's palace in there. The place is absolutely full of well-coifed Boca matrons, the skin on their faces pulled tighter than a snare-drum head, mouths rapping with equal veracity. And just imagine the establishing shots: Camera pulls high above the lot to reveal Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, and Mercedes galore. Think of the product placement!
Even the name, Vivo Partenza, has something lofty and dramatic about it. According to the thick layer of PR draped over the joint, it's Italian for something like "a lively departure." Truth is, Vivo isn't much of a departure from its previous incarnation, Bova Ristorante, which collapsed just before the epic fall of its majority shareholder, Scott Rothstein. When Rothstein got nabbed for orchestrating one of the biggest Ponzi schemes to ever hit South Florida, part-owners Tony and Laurie Bova were forced to close up shop on their three locations, leaving employees and vendors unpaid in the process.
But it seems that in South Florida, all is forgotten and forgiven quickly. A mere month after their last standing restaurant closed, the Bovas wiped the dust off their original location in Boca Raton and reopened those mirrored double doors. Now, it's like Rothstein never happened at all: That palatial interior? Bova. The crowd? They all dined at Bova. The menu? That's right: pure Bova. Vivo's menu even lists Italian food "definitions" up-front, just like the one at Bova did.
To some, Tony and Laurie Bova's phoenix-like resurrection best represents the duplicitous nature of the restaurant biz — one day, you're bankrupt and stiffing people to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars; the next, you're reopening a luxurious restaurant in the heart of South Florida's wealthiest community. But for every detractor, there's some blue-haired Boca-ite who fondly recalls the fantastic restaurant Bova once was. And boy, will they tell you about it. It's as if each one of them is an Italian mother pleading for her son's innocence. "My boy wouldn't-a do that," they say, their mouths half full of snapper vesuvio or lobster tail oreganata. "He's a good boy!" Well here's a news flash: Those folks are still streaming into the place like it was 2006 all over again. They still order $200 bottles of wine to go with their $40 steaks, and they still bask in the luxury that is slowly but ever-so-surely shrinking, diminishing, disappearing.
But as long as they're basking, we might as well too. And so I brought my own family to Vivo on a recent Friday night. We showed up around 8 o'clock, right as the restaurant was bustling with people, its large foyer cluttered with both a hostess stand (helmed by Laurie Bova herself) and a long table filled with guests dining under the shadow of an ornate, silver candelabra. As we entered, a jazz singer from the bar walked through the lobby, belting a soulful tune into a wireless mic. As his silky voice echoed in the loudspeaker, the clink of glasses and the thrum of service mixed to create a chorus of activity. This place was happening.
The five of us were quickly escorted to one of those palatial booths on the far wall, affording us a view that panned over the entire restaurant. It was such a nice seat, I almost thought I'd been found out as a critic. We certainly didn't look like we fit in, anyway: Though each of us had dressed up smartly for the occasion, it was clear we were tourists in this strange world.
Tourist or not, I'll stay as long as Vivo welcomes guests with plates like the antipasto platter we shared ($23). We had ordered it to give us something to nibble on as we perused the expansive menu, but it was almost a meal unto itself. Thinly shaved pieces of prosciutto and coppa adorned the plate, along with a simple arugula salad graced with chunks of honest-to-goodness parmigiano reggiano. There were rounds of fried eggplant, wood-fried artichokes, and the most luxurious roasted red peppers you'll ever find. Oh my God, the peppers. Those fleshy, flame-licked morsels are less vegetable than event, tasting at once sweet and robust. I'd wager they find their way into 50 percent of the dishes at Vivo too. Despite that, I can't say I'd ever tire of them.
Also with peppers: a set of supple meatballs ($14) draped in vibrant tomato sauce and a slick of house-made ricotta. The meatballs are great, but the ricotta is the star. It also shows up on Vivo's menu frequently, most notably with the complimentary bread placed on each table. My brother, ever the ricotta fan, pretty much demolished the stuff. He scooped up the creamy cheese in big swaths, layering it on rosemary- and sea-salt-spiked focaccia and wonderfully crisp flatbread accented by a mere swipe of tomato sauce. A tougher sell for him was the octopus carpaccio I ordered ($14), but the fleshy slivers won him over all the same.