Ernie Patti has never owned a restaurant before, but in all my years of reviewing, I've never seen an owner work the room quite as adeptly as he does. His down-to-earth friendliness is disarming. Why is this tall, fashionable guy with the Brooklyn accent shaking my hand?
The answer's simple. Patti got tired of going to Italian restaurants where the food was bad and the welcome wasn't warm. So with only his background as a nightclub owner, Ernie's Italian Chophouse opened in January.
The exterior of Ernie's belies the fact that Patti hired Deerfield Beach architect Jack Hawk to remake the space into a chic but comfortable space. The white brick hallway leading into the frosted-windowed dining room makes the place feel as if you've entered a private back room. There's little decoration, but the sound of great crooners singing standards sets a clubby mood. It's the country club meets the beach club. I just hope that Patti continues to so openly welcome newcomers as he does his regulars.
Blue-shirted waiters move quickly through the dining room. They deliver baskets of warm, crusty Italian bead and plates of room-temperature, house-cured olives, while we peruse chef Gary Wood's menu and sip well-made cocktails. Order wine, as we did, and sommelier Alfie Alvaradowill arrive. Yes, there's room in this restaurant for a big personality other than Patti.
Chef Wood's resume starts at a Coconut Creek wing joint, and then moves on to the Florida Culinary Institute. He's cheffed at 32 East and Aura in Delray Beach, Tra Vigne in Napa Valley, Charles Nob Hill in San Francisco and Max's Grille in Boca Raton. Most recently, he was a private chef in Palm Beach.
While the menu includes many Italian classics, the chef's broad experience makes much of it feel new. Wood, who I'm told is "in no way, shape or form Italian," also may feel more free to experiment than someone who's worried about corrupting nonna's recipes.
I can't remember the last time I was at a restaurant where everything was quite this good.
It's as simple as a hearty bowl of fresh escarole and tender cannelloni beans ($6) in a flavorful pancetta-dotted broth. The chivalini sausage ring ($19), among the small plates, is made for Patti by a local butcher. A pair of veal meatballs ($15) are served with a dollop of ricotta and a mixed green salad. Grilled octopus ($20) is cooked to perfect tenderness and tossed with warm limoncello vinaigrette. We also ordered spieidini di mozzarella ($10) — mozzarella skewers with charred tomato and anchovy dressing — that made me think I was at an Italian, small-plate gastropub.
Pay attention to specials or you might miss something like the soft-shell crab ($32 for two, or $18 each), pan-roasted and served with roasted royal-trumpet mushrooms, blistered grape tomatoes, grilled scallions and lemon-basil pan sauce. An exquisite ravioli special was filled with ricotta, pecorino-Romano and caramelized onions ($17 for a half order). But Wood knows his way around classic spaghetti all'amatriciana ($19 or $10 half)), the sauce made with unsmoked Italian bacon and tomatoes. Another night, we ordered black fettuccine ($25) with shrimp in white-wine butter sauce topped with jumbo crab and toasted bread crumbs. Sunday gravy ($30) is a hugely portioned serving that includes paccheri, meatballs, sausage, pork ribs and braciole.
Wood's Sterling Silver Beef is aged 21 days and very simply grilled in keeping with the chophouse side of the Patti's operation. We had the New York strip ($37), the kind of steak you dream of finding in every restaurant. I also can't say enough about chicken Scarpariello ($36 or $20 for half). I'm told it's first brined and then lightly fried. But it has none of the characteristics of fried chicken. It's plated with sweet Italian sausage and peppers.
For dessert, there's a flourless chocolate cake ($7), made with exactly the kind of sweet dark chocolate I like — none of the bitterness that sometimes tastes more like a chocolate-covered espresso bean. I can also vouch for the classic Italian cheesecake ($9). But the best dessert is bread pudding ($9), which tastes to me like the best combination of bread pudding and coffee cake, complete with crispy edges.
While I can't tell you how to eat dinner, Ernie's is best experienced with friends who won't mind their tablemates' forks poaching from their plates.
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Ernie's Italian Chophouse
3150 N. Federal Highway, Lighthouse Point