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We Are Family

The campaign in Portugal is on: convince the wine-drinking world that natural cork is the only renewable resource appropriate to stop up a bottle of vino. Portuguese cork harvesters (yes, it really does come from trees) and cork-stopper manufacturers have banded together to enforce industrywide standards that will ensure a better, more sanitary product to prevent the spoilage of wine. The new initiative is a direct response to artificial cork producers and screw-cap makers, both of whom have made great strides in convincing vintners and consumers alike that cork alternatives, nontraditional and unsightly though they might be, are far preferable to spoiled wine.

Not everyone is convinced, of course, which is what the Portuguese are counting on. Experts ranging from wine critics to knowledgeable drinkers have weighed in on either side of the debate. I myself am of two minds. Having been the victim of far too many "corked" bottles lately, I'm all for finding a better means of preservation. But I do love the ritual of uncorking a really good bottle of wine.

Trifling though it may sound to nonwine aficionados, I'm uncomfortably reminded of the brewing controversy every time I uncork or, more rarely, unscrew a bottle of wine (an act of consumerism -- or is it alcoholism? -- I admit to committing nightly). Frankly, I don't know on whose behalf to feel empathy or experience guilt. But I think in the end, I'll deal with whatever trend the industry follows. Because as I found at Bruno's, a nine-month-old Italian restaurant in Pembroke Pines, the alternatives -- not drinking wine at all or sniffing and sipping the only option, a nonvintage, nonlabeled "house wine" that comes by the glass or by the carafe -- are worse.

The fact that Bruno's doesn't have a wine list is not only surprising for a family-run restaurant based on the cuisine of an internationally regarded wine-producing nation but it's downright shameful: When homemade fare is this tasty, it deserves to be matched accordingly. The way fava beans, for instance, pair with a nice Chianti (insert Silence of the Lambs sound effect here). Fortunately, the lack of fine wine (corked with the real thing, a substitute, or topped by a screw cap) is the only disappointment at Bruno's, where recipes, portion sizes, prices, and hospitality are all the most authentically pleasing products I've sampled in some time.

Indeed, Bruno's claims on the menu that the eatery is "proud to celebrate the time-honored traditions of La Familia Italiano... The Italian family" and that "the family runs deep here, from our Grandmother's recipes peppered throughout our extensive menu to the photographs decorating our walls" is apparent. And not just in décor, though the black-and-white wedding pictures and other posed souvenirs from times gone by are a mildly interesting distraction. Dishes like the vitello alla vadala, tender veal medallions sautéed with mushrooms and tomatoes and topped with supple jumbo shrimp and a delectable Marsala cream sauce, are so well- executed and have so much character that they practically have a signature on them. Ditto the chicken cacciatore, a chunky stew that features chicken breast only, sliced and braised in a rich comprisal of tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, and green peppers.

My particular favorite, the baked sampler, tickled me right away because it included lasagna, stuffed shells, manicotti, and ravioli. In every other typical family Italian restaurant, you have to settle for just one of these baked pasta dishes. But here, the chunky lasagna made a perfect foil for a manicotti that performed like a crepe; the spinach-cheese ravioli gave green bite to the overflowing ricotta-stuffed shells. Add a side of perfectly seasoned and textured meatballs -- not too solid with ground meat, not too soft from filler -- and it's both dinner and lunch the next day.

In short, Grandmother should not only be commended but doesn't need my approval: She's apparently a "hot stove," a woman whose cooking was so much admired that she fed the entire neighborhood. Still, I doubt she's responsible for some of the more modern items that dot the menu. For instance, "Christina's California grill," a main-plate salad featuring grilled chicken, diced avocado, mozzarella, tomatoes, onions, and mixed greens, is served in baked pizza-dough shells, an homage to tostadas and taco salads. Specialty pizzas run the gamut from Greek (sausage, sautéed spinach, and feta cheese) to the very American-inspired "Bacon Cheeseburger" (ground sirloin, crumbled bacon, and cheddar cheese).

But before you make a face, allow me to assure you that these pies are far from the mere novelties that they sound. I was amused enough to order a "Buffalo Wing" pizza but cautious enough to ask for the 10-inch (as opposed to 14- or 16-inch size). No doubt I could have swallowed a bigger portion along with my skepticism. The crisp, thin crust had been lightly coated with blue cheese dressing mixed with tangy hot sauce. Melted, just-stringy mozzarella cheese and a freshly pan-fried chicken cutlet, dipped first in bread crumbs, topped the pizza. The effect was delicious, though far from traditional.

If classical standards are your norm, consider ordering a Margherita pizza or "Chef Eric's pepperoni bread" to share as an appetizer. We nibbled at an excellent stromboli, the hefty, layered interior of sausage, pepperoni, ham, salami, and mozzarella looking like the strata of earth composites revealed at an archaeological site. Do keep in mind, however, that any item made with the pizza dough is not only filling but tends toward the enormous, a size belied by prices. A large stromboli, for instance, is $12.95 and is presented like a curled Yule log on a 16-inch pizza tray.

Another tidbit to remember is that main courses are preceded by soup or salad. If pasta fagiole is soup of the day, indulge in the garlicky, creamy broth; it goes exceptionally well with complimentary garlic rolls, which themselves are so piquant with the crushed bulb that Tagamet makes a wise bedfellow. Salads, not to be neglected, were nicely crunchy compositions of iceberg lettuce and red cabbage, and even the tomato wedges were juicy rather than mushy. Ask the servers for advice in choosing salad dressings; they're forthcoming about which are made in-house and which are received from purveyors.

In fact, rely on the waitstaff for good guidance throughout. Our server was so personable, we were comfortable joking around with him, but he also knew when to retreat. Plus, he was proved correct often enough that we followed him without question when it came to dessert, which he himself had made in the morning. The banana cream pie, lidded with white chocolate fondant that tasted like melted and re-formed Toblerone, was a lovely arrangement of flavorful counterpoints. Dark, moist, chocolate layer cake was iced with a frosting that had the rich consistency of chocolate pudding. But these two treats were so huge that we felt we had no more initiative to sample a cannoli, which the waiter admitted was also of mammoth proportions. We liked his solution, though: He brought us one of the smaller ones, stuffed with creamed ricotta cheese and chocolate chips, that Bruno's includes in its early-bird special.

The end of the meal did bring us another objection -- the coffee, not the check. Both were on the light side, but when it comes to after-dinner libations, I prefer mine to be robust and heady. Which could lead me into a discussion on why such a wonderfully homey Italian eatery doesn't have a decent cup of espresso in the house. But since I'm not as up on coffee issues as I am on wine, well, this time I'll just put a cork in it.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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