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Review: Casa Calabria in Fort Lauderdale is a hotel dining room that feels like home

 

★★★

Casa Calabria welcomes guests with a simple touch of Southern Italian soul. A loaf of bread, crusty on the outside and yeasty on the inside, arrived soon after we were seated on a recent weekend. No butter. A glass container of extra-virgin olive oil was on the table, ready for pouring. Our server set down two small bowls: a tapenade paste with olives and sun-dried tomato, and a smooth tomato-basil sauce.

The bread was from Gran Forno, a fine Italian bakery in Fort Lauderdale. The rest was straight from Casa Calabria owner Frank Talerico’s heart.

“I remember being around the table with my family growing up, and we all dipped bread in sauce,” Talerico says in a followup interview after my meal.

Thus, the same can be done at Casa Calabria, Talerico’s tribute to his late parents and Southern Italian roots at the Ocean Manor Beach Resort on Galt Ocean Mile. Talerico was born in Calabria, a region at the front foot/toe part of Italy’s boot, in the small mountain town of San Giovanni in Fiore. His father raised goats and made fresh ricotta. His grandmother, mother and aunt cooked big Sunday suppers of stuffed peppers, gnocchi and pasta with rich, simmered meat sauce. His parents wanted the proverbial better life in the United States, so the family moved to Michigan in 1973, when he was 6.

Many of the dishes Talerico warmly remembers from his youth can be found on Casa Calabria’s menu. They are made with his family’s recipes from Calabrian ingredients shipped in a few times a month. The restaurant also features housemade pastas, antipasto meats cured at a small Calabrian salumeria in the Bronx, octopus from Portugal and fresh branzino flown in from the Mediterranean. Nearly everything I had was good, prepared simply and smartly by three Italian-born chefs who helm the kitchen.

Even before knowing Talerico’s family history, I happily dipped and dunked the bread in sauce to start my meal. The sauce was silky and mellow, a warm wet kiss on the inside of the cheek. The tomatoes for the sauce come canned from Calabria. Talerico also gets olive oil, porcini mushrooms and dried pasta from his native region, where he still has relatives and makes regular visits.

Little touches such as these elevate Casa Calabria beyond the typical red-sauce Italian joint. It opened in February 2016 and has been steadily building a following with a lively bar, live music and an oceanfront view. It is a hotel dining room that feels like a home, with photos of Talerico’s parents and pictures of Calabrian villages and landscapes on the walls. The food and service are good, the prices veer toward the high side, and the atmosphere borders on Bill Murray lounge-singer cheesy as drinks flow and songs get belted out around a red piano.

The front of the restaurant has brick walls and columns near an open kitchen. The back has a wood-paneled ceiling and big oceanfront windows overlooking a pool deck. Some furnishings have the feel of a grandmother’s house. I wouldn’t call the room elegant, but it works. Things got a little hot and cramped on the night of my visit. One of the hotel’s air-conditioning compressors was still out after Irma, Talerico explains, but it has since been fixed.

In a way, Casa Calabria is a happy accident. Talerico started in the food business, working at a relative’s restaurant in Michigan in his teens and opening his own restaurant at age 20. He came to South Florida in 1991 as the franchise owner of some Hungry Howie’s pizza restaurants. He then branched into real estate, buying and renting out condos and apartments. He bought the Ocean Manor on Galt Ocean Mile at a bankruptcy auction in 2004 with the intention of flipping it, but those plans cratered after Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and the financial meltdown that followed.

More than a decade later, Talerico, 50, still owns the hotel. He has turned it into a personal reclamation project. He lives onsite and has built a new tiki bar and oceanfront terrace. He proudly points to the hotel’s rising rankings on Trip Advisor, going from near bottom to No. 20 in Fort Lauderdale.

Casa Calabria sprouted from a failed sushi restaurant, and Talerico has thrown himself into creating a restaurant that would make his parents proud. His father, Tomasso, died two years ago. “He worked at a Ford factory for a few months after he came to America, but he hated being inside,” Talerico says. “He found work outdoors. He was a farmer at heart.” His mother, Angelina, died last year.

Talerico hired the three Italian chefs, but he is in the kitchen tasting food almost daily, and he has traveled to Italy to authenticate family recipes with relatives.

The homey flavors come through on many plates. His mother’s recipe for baked stuffed peppers Calabrese ($21) is a winner, a velvety treat filled with ground beef, veal, rice, onions and garlic and topped with melted mozzarella. The rigatoni with simmered beef tenderloin in tomato sauce ($24) is rich and nourishing, cooked low and slow and stirred properly along the way.

Pasta was properly al dente, both the freshly made pappardelle with porcini mushrooms in truffle cream sauce ($22) and the dried rigatoni. A grilled and nicely marbled veal chop ($39) had great char on the outside and was undercooked inside — closer to rare than the ordered medium-rare — but was still delicious.

We tried a three-item antipasto plate ($22) with speck, pecorino and Gorgonzola. The meat and cheeses were good, served with a wedge of cantaloupe, grapes and a caramelized onion, but seemed a bit pricey. Beef carpaccio ($17) was pounded thin and melted in the mouth. The grilled octopus ($15) was tender, served with a balanced balsamic glaze that didn’t overwhelm. Branzino is offered several ways, and we chose a special preparation ($44) with clams, mussels and a tassel of linguine. The fish was cooked perfectly, and the broth from the other sea treats enhanced the flavor. A seafood risotto ($29) was average, with flavorless shrimp that seemed lifeless.

Desserts were fine, including a housemade chocolate gelato ($10) and a tiramisu ($10) that was creamy and not overwhelmed with rum. The wine list is nearly all Italian, and we went with a Calabrian red, I Greco Masino ($55), with a portlike flavor indicating it may have been a little past its peak.

Our server was friendly and attentive. My lone quibble is something I’m finding more often at nicer restaurants: We ordered a bottle of sparkling water at the start, and another $8 bottle was poured later in the meal without asking. Unless the refills are free, I think protocol dictates a simple, “Would you like more bottled water?”

That extra $8 on the final tab was a sure reminder we were in a Fort Lauderdale hotel and not the family table. Casa Calabria still felt close enough to home.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

Casa Calabria

4040 Galt Ocean Drive, Fort Lauderdale (in Ocean Manor Beach Resort)

954-982-2191 or CasaCalabriaFtL.com

Cuisine: Italian, with specialties from the Calabria region

Cost: Expensive. Salads and appetizers cost $11 to $22, pastas $18 to $29, mains $25 to $44, desserts $8 to $10.

Hours: Dinner 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.

Reservations: Suggested, by phone and online

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full bar and Italian-centric wine list

Noise level: Convivial, can get loud with live piano music

Handicapped access: Ground level

Parking: Free valet with validation

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