Osteria Acqua & Farina

The open kitchen at Osteria Acqua & Farina. (John Tanasychuk / Courtesy / March 12, 2013)

Background: For many people, this spot will always been known as "the old Valentino's." Because this is where Giovanni Rocchio plied his craft for six years before moving operations a few blocks north. Rocchio kept this spot open for several months, but decided to concentrate on his new venture, and found capable owners in restaurant veterans Dario Catalani and Attilio Reale. They took over the space on Jan. 1. Catalani was born in Venezuela and worked there, in Italy and Miami Beach. Reale worked in his native Italy and at the Setai, Miami Beach Hotel and Resort.

First impression: Catalani and Reale made few changes to the menu, maintaining the sensational selection of pizzas and pastas that give the restaurant its name, which translates to "Water and Flour." Rocchio's brother Chris still cooks here. Appetizers and pizzas are so good that I'd come back for a light meal and a glass of wine from the succinct wine list.

Quote: "We use a lot of good, quality products," Catalani says. "We are a small place. We cook fresh every day. We don't cook for the next two or three days like other places do. We can't do that because we're small."


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Ambience: The 62-seat restaurant sits at one end of a plaza that houses a sandwich shop and a nail salon. It's nothing fancy. Open the front door, and the open kitchen with a pizza oven sits to the left. Framed mirrors hang along one wall. The place gets loud when the comfortable booths and tables are full.

Starters: Eggplant timbale ($16) features layers of eggplant and cheese cooked in a baking dish and brought to the table along with fresh crusty Italian bread. A salad ($14) of fennel, orange slices and arugula is a fresh start to a meal that can be quite heavy if you don't order carefully. Corn salad ($14) features roasted corn and candied walnuts in a light vinaigrette. Fried calamari ($13) with bright-red, fresh marinara doesn't rise above ordinary. Spiedino Romano ($11) has great flavor, but the center of these balls of bread and cheese is refrigerator-cold.

Pizzas: In a word? Incredible. The crust is crunchy, but still chewy, and the kitchen shows just the right amount of restraint when it comes to toppings. The menu includes eight white pizzas and eight red pizzas. Porcini ($15) is topped with a scattering of mushrooms along with taleggio cheese, garlic and a hint of truffle oil. Meat lovers will adore Rustica ($14), with roasted red peppers, thinly sliced salami, Italian sausage and red onions. The tomato sauce has a bit of spice.

Entree excellence: Chicken Valentino ($21) is one of those chicken dishes you'll crave. A boneless breast is stuffed with spinach, raisins, pine nuts, goat cheese and mushrooms. It's rolled in panko, crisped on top of the stove and then roasted. The sauce is a simple, buttery tomato creation. Snapper alla Fiorentina ($28) is lightly egg-battered and served in a light lemon sauce with spinach, garlic and white wine. I was disappointed in the pasta, even though the lasagna sheets (as well as cavatelli) are handmade. The lasagna ($14) was burnt on the bottom, and so hot it couldn't be touched until everyone else had finished their meals. The pieces of guanciale in the bucatini Amatriciana ($14) were far too big and took over the entire dish.

Sweet! I'm a big fan of Italian cheesecake ($9), and this thick slice did not disappoint. Nutellino ($12) is a calzone stuffed with Nutella and bananas. It's then served with whipped cream and fresh blackberries, and I can guarantee it will be gone before you know it.

Service: Our waiter's style of service veered between pizza parlor casual and fine dining. Overall, service is delivered by real pros and hospitality is top-notch. A manager held the door open as we left and invited us to return.

jtanasychuk@SouthFlorida.com or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SouthFlorida.com/sup and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats

1145 S. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale

954-523-1115

Cuisine: Italian

Cost: Moderate/expensive

Hours: Lunch weekdays dinner Monday-Saturday

Reservations: Suggested

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Beer and wine

Sound level: Noisy when full

Outside smoking: Yes

For kids: Highchairs, menu items on request

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Parking: Free lot and meters