First impression: The first thing I realized about Empire Pizza Cafe is that the woman behind the cash register was friendly and courteous and found a way to share a laugh. She knew the menu as if she owned the place. As it turns out, Robin Levy-Castillo does own the place, along with husband Hernan Castillo and brother Eric Levy. Her parents, Sandy and Sandy Levy, once owned La Piazza in Plantation and first opened Empire at Sawgrass Mills in 2003. The restaurant moved to its current spot in 2010. Not only is Empire family-owned, but Levy-Castillo is also a trained chef and a graduate of the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.
The menu: While this is first and foremost a pizzeria, the Levys have run full-service Italian restaurants, and that background shows in the ambitious menu. The basil-cheese pizza slice ($2.50) is perfect after you top it with shakings of cheese, crushed red pepper and Italian seasoning. The crust is just crisp enough. The sauce is made in-house. Peek into the glass case at the front of the restaurant for a sampling of Empire's specialty pizzas, including barbecue chicken, baked ziti, penne alla vodka or Greek pizza with spinach, ricotta, mozzarella, feta, tomatoes, olives and red onions. Each day brings a different meat or vegetable pinwheel ($1.85 each), savory buns filled with everything from chicken Parmesan to spinach and ricotta. The garden salad ($7.50) or chopped Greek salad ($10.50) are perfect for lunch with the addition of grilled chicken ($2.95). Among the 15 pasta dishes are meat lasagna ($7.95 lunch/$11.95 dinner), spaghetti Bolognese ($7.95 lunch/$10.95 dinner) and gnocchi con mozzarella ($9.50 lunch/$13.95 dinner). I loved the fettuccine Alfredo ($8.50 lunch/ $11.95 dinner), creamy and rich with perfectly cooked pasta.
Other entrees: Wanting to go beyond pizza, pasta and salads, and instead of grabbing a quick lunch, I ordered from the chicken and veal entrees section of the menu when I went in to review Empire. Chicken scarpariello ($9.95 lunch/$14.95 dinner) combines sausage, potatoes, olives, roasted peppers and hot peppers sauteed in a rich balsamic demi-glace. I ordered it spicy, and was delighted. Veal Marsala ($10.50 lunch/$16.50 dinner) started with tender, lightly bread veal, but what was with all the onions in the sauce? They overpowered the wine.
Ambience: A step-up from most fast-casual spots with warm lighting and wood in the 30-seat dining room. The Levys are originally from New York, so the Big Apple is celebrated in the decor. A big statue of a gorilla stands out front in deference to "King Kong." More "King Kong" can be found inside, along with a New York subway map, Yankees paraphernalia and other odes to their hometown.
Sweet!: This is where Levy-Castillo's training comes in. Creme-brulee crisp ($8.50) is served in a pecan basket. It's creamy and eggy with a bit of caramelized crispiness. Chocolate beast ($6.50) is a torte with layer cake and what appears to be two kinds of ganache. Whole cakes are available with advance warning.
Service: Even though you order from a counter and wait for food to be delivered, service couldn't be more friendly.
Dining deal: At lunchtime, two slices of cheese pizza and a soda costs $6.36. Additional toppings and specialty pizzas are also offered on this two-slice special.
Catering: Along with business lunches in nearby offices, Empire does private parties for homeowners.
15 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Noisy when full
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot