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Review: Mangos in Fort Lauderdale has an identity crisis — and good Italian food

 

★★½

There is blood on the floor, and in the surrounding waters, of the reborn Mangos on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. I’m speaking figuratively, of course. The floors are white with red splotches of what looks like blood, an abstract painting gone to ground level and one of the many design elements that will have loyalists of the original Mangos shaking their heads. And the knives from online haters have been out since the new version opened in February 2018, after a sale and one-year renovation.

For 25 years, Mangos was a trusted, touristy and eventually tired Fort Liquordale mainstay that featured live bands, middling bar food and a tropical/Caribbean vibe. When the restaurant returned three months ago under a new ownership group headed by Bruno Vaccari, a restaurateur who spends most of his time in Italy, Mangos was a completely different animal. The comfortable landmark of yesteryear had morphed into an Ocean Drive-stye lounge with leather couches and LED lighting and disco strobes in the back, and a restaurant that featured an Italian-dominated menu, $50 veal chops, and red-brick walls in the front. As soon as I sneaked a peek a few weeks before the reopening, I sensed there would be trouble.

“People are finding themselves in a restaurant that screams South Beach — and our reality is Fort Lauderdale,” says Mangos general manger Daniel Rogenski, who came aboard after the reopening and after another general manager had been jettisoned.

My impression after a recent dinner on a quiet Sunday: If I had walked blindfolded into Mangos and didn’t know the restaurant’s name or history, I would have said, “Decent Italian food, good service, satisfying meal.” I would also have preferred to remain blindfolded, because the decor and some other touches, such as orange high-back chairs, Mason jars, plastic woven placemats and multicolored, clunky plates, were discordant and just plain weird. When my group walked in, we spotted a Louie Bossi’s carryout bag on the bar, a strange omen. The rear bar and lounge section were closed, hidden behind black curtains. Televisions mounted throughout the dining areas were on, but silent. The side dining room had a waterfall wall and multicolored lights pointed up, beaming colors of the rainbow and casting weird glows.

The fashionista friend in my group winced and described the interior as “Eurotrash cafeteria … Everything in here is just wrong.”

Most of the food was straightforward and good, such as beef carpaccio ($14) with arugula, truffle oil and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano and tender grilled octopus ($32) served with rich and creamy truffle mashed potatoes, sauteed spinach and thin, crispy Sardinian flatbread known as carasau. The half-pound Mangos burger ($14) with caramelized onions, truffle mayonnaise and shredded lettuce on a buttered brioche bun was a bit overcooked past the ordered medium, but still sloppily satisfying. Hand-cut fries were terrific, hefty and crunchy.

Buccatini amatriciana ($25) was hearty, with pancetta, onions and a rich tomato sauce, but could have used a bit more spice. Seafood spaghetti ($29) was fine, with good clams, mussels and shrimp, but the calamari was rubbery and seemed frozen. The wild-berry panna cotta ($9) dessert, served parfait-style in a cocktail glass, was pretty and tasty.

My biggest question after the visit: Why the heck did the new owners keep the Mangos name?

All it does is set up comparisons to the past and open the door to preconceived notions. Is the residual value (from returning customers/tourists/Google searchers) who expect one thing and get another worth it? Wouldn’t it have been better to just rename the place Mangias?

For some reason, Vaccari and Rogenski can’t bring themselves to admit the place is an Italian restaurant, insisting on calling the cuisine “fusion.” Executive chef Francesco Guizio is Italian and knows his way around pastas and homey dishes such as eggplant parmigiana ($14), neatly served in a small casserole dish.

Then again, branding the new Mangos an Italian restaurant would raise another question: Namely, why bother buying an iconic name if all you plan to do is turn it into another Italian joint within a meatball’s throw of Caffe Europa, Louie Bossi’s, Noodles Panini and Luigi’s Tuscan Grill?

“People have been enjoying the food,” Rogenski says. “The struggle has been opening with the same name. Because we’re not the old Mangos we’ve lost a few customers in the transition. Some of them have been close-minded. But we’re finding an identity and we’re definitely headed in the right direction.”

We shall see. Rogenski says the restaurant is catering to Broward’s growing Hispanic population with Latin music and entertainment from Thursdays through Saturdays, which has been attracting customers from Weston and other western cities (so why no Latin dishes?). He says it is also launching an LGBTQ night on Tuesdays, along with trivia and karaoke on Wednesdays. I’ve been hearing from Las Olas regulars that the place has been pretty empty, save for go-go dancers shaking and shimmying on weekends to thumping, loud music. I mainly get the sense that Mangos is a mixed-up, sinking ship.

The menu has been revamped and pared down, and prices have been lowered in the past three months. The $50 prime steaks and veal chops are gone. Besides pastas such as housemade fettucine with mushrooms and Italian-American standards such as chicken Parmesan, stray American staples such as burgers and ribs have found their way into the mix. The bar menu features chicken wings, but the menu in the dining room did not. One person in my group received a different menu than the rest of us — it turned out to be an outdated one. Our server told us about a lamb chop special, but returned after we ordered to say that it was not available.

Somehow, I have a feeling the new Mangos will not last 25 years.

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

Mangos

904 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale

954-525-5001 or MangosOnLasOlas.com

Cuisine: Italian-dominated menu with some American items such as burgers and ribs

Cost: Moderate to expensive. Appetizers, soup, burgers and salads cost $7 to $18, pastas $10-$29, mains $22-$32, paella for two $40, kids menu items $8-$9, desserts $6-$9

Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily (until 2 a.m. Friday-Saturday)

Reservations: Accepted by phone or online

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full liquor with beer, wine and sangria by the glass or carafe

Noise level: Conversational with background music during lunch and quieter nights, gets loud late with live bands and DJs in the back lounge

Wheelchair access: Ground level

Parking: Valet, private lot or metered street

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