Like a late summer fling on a Mediterranean isle, the start of a recent meal at Zona Blu brought me to an ecstatic and carefree place. The gorgeous salumeria antipasto tray, splayed with meats, cheeses and bright green olives that seemed ready to burst like buds in spring, seduced me. The spaghetti alla borttarga, a velvety, umami Sardinian dish sprinkled with shavings of pressed salt-cured mullet roe, teased me. (There was no crushed red pepper, as the menu promised, but I was too eager and enamored to complain about this beauty's lone blemish). And the soufflé al pecorino, a rich, creamy dream baked with cheese, mushrooms and black truffle sauce, touched me in a deep, soulful way.
I thought we were headed somewhere special. The room was bright and cheery. A guitarist played sweet music. Sardinian wine was flowing, a Jankara red blend that crackled with crisp minerals at the start and then turned voluptuous in a decanter and proper Riedel stemware.
Yes, this was love all right. I hadn't been so happy about a trip to Weston since the dark days following Hurricane Wilma, when the city was virtually the only place in South Florida with power, and I came to forage for groceries and takeout meals.
But on my recent visit, I was given an unpleasant jolt when Zona Blu stumbled in the end. Maybe I asked for too much too soon. Or in this case, too late. A group of 16 tourists from Hong Kong came in, and the kitchen got backed up. Our table was left hanging, waiting a long time for mains. That was excusable. We drank more wine, listened to more music, enjoyed the spectacle of head waiter Pasquale Loddi preparing spaghetti a la ruota, pasta flambéed in the center scrapings of a hollowed-out Grana Padano cheese wheel, for another table.
But when the mains finally arrived, the fileted branzino ($36) was crispy on the outside but dry and lifeless on the inside. And my porchetta alla sarda ($23) was an affront to all senses, the pork overcooked to shoe leather and saturated with so much salt I thought the poor piggy had taken a dip in the Dead Sea. "It tastes like someone poured an entire shaker on it," one tablemate said.
I complained, and sent it back. Our server asked me if the chef could try again, or prepare another dish. I declined. But the pork stuck around on the final tab.
"I apologize for that," co-owner Debbie Bautista says in a follow-up interview. She says dishes that are sent back and not replaced are supposed to be removed from checks.
Apology accepted. The hiccups left me disappointed, dashing my dreams of falling head over heels and doling out an elusive four stars. That will have to wait. And considering some other flaws — a clam pizza ($18) that was tasty but soggy, a cannoli desssert ($8) with pastry shells a bit limp and languid — I ended up coming down to earth and settling on a very solid three stars.
Don't misunderstand me. If you like Italian food, or delicious variations thereof, you should try Zona Blu. This was one of the more original and enjoyable meals I've had this year. I can't wait to come back on my own dime to taste other signature Sardinian items, including the spaghetti al cartoccio ($28, pasta and seafood oven-baked with a thin pillow of pizza dough on top) or couscous with mixed seafood ($24). And I can't wait to again have the pecorino souffle ($15) and the salumeria antipasto ($18 for two meats and two cheeses), served with a vinegary giardiniera and an addictive housemade onion jam on curved wooden platters made from Sardinian cork trees.
In fact, one of my tablemates returned this week, craving the salty-and-sweet seadas con miele sardo dessert ($8, a baked cheese mound drizzled with honey), and was heartbroken because Zona Blu was closed for a private party. That party, it turns out, was a one-year anniversary celebration for the restaurant's regular customers, thrown by Bautista and her sister and co-owner Sheila David, chef-owner Andrea Fadda and chef de cuisine Marco De Simone. Since opening in September 2015, Zona Blu has become a hit in the western suburbs.
"It's not your typical Italian restaurant," says Bautista, a Weston resident and former marketing executive whose parents are Sardinian. "This all kind of just came together. It's really been a blessing."
It came to fruition when chef Fadda, a well-traveled Sardinian who helmed a kitchen in Miami Beach, and Bautista's uncle, a Sardinian who has restaurants in Michigan, teamed up with the two sisters to find a comfortable, family-friendly location. They found it in a strip shopping center on Weston Road. The room is light, airy and informal, with wooden tabletops handcrafted by Bautista's father and blue-splashed, paper placemats filled with fun facts about Sardinia, created by Bautista's mother.
For the uninitiated, Sardinia is an island off Italy, near Sicily. Through the centuries, it's been conquered and occupied by nearly all Mediterranean powers (Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Moors, Spaniards), leading to a rich and varied culture. Seafood dominates. And so does simple, healthy living. National Geographic designated Sardinia one of the world's "Blue Zones," areas that have a high concentration of people who live past 100.
Thus, the restaurant's name, along with the wall inscription above the bar proclaiming "A Kent Annos" — to 100 years — the traditional Sardinian toast.
I'll drink to that. Forget the summer fling, Zona Blu. Warts and all, I'm ready for a relationship.
firstname.lastname@example.org, 954-356-4508. Read my dining blog at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeat. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats
189 Weston Road, Weston
Cuisine: Sardinian and Italian
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m daily (until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday)
Reservations: Only for large groups (eight or more)
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Conversational, music/guitarist on weekends
Family friendly: Yes, with kids' items and chairs
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot