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Review: Prezzo in Boca Raton is a comfortable, safe Italian revival

 

★★★

Reboots are all the rage on television, so why not with restaurants? Take a comfortable old formula, sprinkle in a few modern twists and voila — success should be assured so long as the previous fan base is still alive, a few fresh faces check it out and nobody mucks up things too badly along the way. A pinch of drama doesn’t hurt, provided it all works out in the end, and everyone goes home happy.

That pretty much sums up the revival of Prezzo in Boca Raton by veteran restaurateur Burt Rapoport. The new Prezzo, which opened Christmas week 2017, is a safe and comforting journey to the past that also stacks up well in the present. Prezzo was a popular Italian restaurant that had legions of fans and multiple South Florida locations in the 1990s. A meal at the relaunched version begins with a complimentary bulb of fresh-roasted garlic with sweet cloves baked to golden creaminess, which can then be smeared on fresh-baked focaccia breadsticks, just like the old days. A meal can end with the signature dessert of apple tart, crisped golden in the wood-burning oven, just like the old days. In between comes a variety of Italian standards — pizzas, pastas, meats, seafood — that are not particularly innovative but nevertheless satisfying.

The pan-roasted clams ($16) were perfectly cooked in a spicy, garlicky tomato broth that we wouldn’t let the staff clear until all the juice was properly sopped and soaked with bread. The fried calamari ($14) could have been a bit crisper and blotted a bit better to remove excess oil, but the fresh squid was tender and tasty. A simple salad of seasonal greens ($10) had light and vibrant vinaigrette and sweet slices of apple with toasted walnuts.

The appetizers allayed my worst fears. It turns out the new location of Prezzo was not jinxed after all. Walking into the Park Place shopping plaza on a recent Saturday night, I was filled with trepidation. Prezzo opened in the same site where two Rapoport delicatessen concepts flopped last year, first Rappy’s (an ode to his late father, who ran a kosher dairy restaurant in New York) and then Park Place Deli, which featured lower prices and more traditional menu items after the locals rebelled against Rappy’s modern twists such as vegetarian chopped liver made from lentils and alcohol-spiked milkshakes.

From the deli debacle came the Prezzo rebirth, including the flashy hiring of James Beard Award-winning chef Mark Militello. But Militello was already gone by the time I had made it in for a meal. Militello left in March after just three months, returning to Josie’s Ristorante in Boynton Beach as a consultant. “We’re both restaurant veterans. He liked to do things his way, and I like to do things my way,” Rapoport said in an interview after my meal. “It just didn’t work out.”

Patrick Broadhead, executive chef for Burt & Max’s in west Delray Beach and a longtime Rapoport Restaurant Group employee, was brought in to helm the Prezzo kitchen. Rapoport says he and Broadhead are revamping and tweaking ingredients and menu items. An all-day menu for both lunch and dinner will soon be unveiled, along with a dozen lunch specials that will be available for $12.

Knowing what I know about Rapoport (a pragmatic businessman who wants to offer product that tastes good but doesn’t break the bank) and Militello (a creative kitchen auteur who likes to play with the finest ingredients and sometimes labor-intense technique), I could see how there was a clash. The dishes I had at Prezzo were all good but a bit underwhelming for these artisanal, made-from-scratch times. Dry pasta was used in pasta dishes, and those dishes were fine, although Rapoport says the kitchen will start experimenting with fresh pastas later this summer. A disappointing margherita pizza ($14) was the weakest link of the meal, underdone and bearing no flavor nor singed marks from the wood-fired oven. The pizza was made with shredded prepared mozzarella, not slices of fresh mozzarella. Rapoport says the pizza will soon feature both types.

If I had known the pizza would be so mediocre, I would have gotten my cheese intake for the night by ordering from the “burrata bar” items, one of the more modern touches on the menu. It features fresh burratas and mozzarellas from local purveyors, along with the choice of additional roasted vegetables and cured and smoked salamis, prosciuttos and other meats. Next time.

When I sent Rapoport a photograph of my pizza after the meal he said it wasn’t made to Prezzo’s specifications. It certainly didn’t remind me of the slightly burnt, chewy and doughy pies that came from the oven at the Aventura location in the 1990s.

Rapoport launched the original Prezzo in Boca Raton in 1989 with on-and-off business partner Dennis Max and a talented young chef named Angelo Elia. The place boasted one of the first wood-burning ovens in South Florida. Locations in Aventura and Kendall followed. Rapoport and Max sold to a group that had national franchising plans, but all went bust, and Prezzo shuttered in 1999.

Rapoport says Boca residents kept telling him they missed Prezzo, and apparently they were not lying, because the place was full when we came for a later reservation. We were seated promptly in a spacious booth by the bar. An open kitchen with the wood-burning oven looks over the dining room, which features semicircular lime-green banquettes along one wall. Photos from the old Prezzo line a wall near the bar.

Our meal started brusquely and a bit rushed as our waiter — clearly an old pro who was in high-energy, 78-rpm, Saturday-prime-time mode — slapped down water glasses and bread plates with such vigor I thought we had done something to offend him. Appetizers came out in a hurry, and I thought for a minute the floor might be trying to turn the table one more time before the 10 p.m. closing time.

But then, things relaxed. Our server warmed up, slowed down and stopped slamming. We had quibbles but no major complaints. It would have been nice to know that the kitchen had sold out of the veal chop special before we ordered it (perhaps it happened just as our server turned in the ticket), so we settled for the pork chop on the bone ($26), instead. It would have been nice if the 2012 Col D’Orcia Brunello de Montalcino ($85), one of the pricier options on the wine list, was served in better stemware than the standard (and smallish) wine glasses. It would have been nice if the pork chop, served with a beautiful creamy polenta and roasted peppers and onions, also had a few hot cherry peppers on the side for spice. It would have been nice if the snapper oreganata ($32) wasn’t quite so heavily coated with breadcrumbs (on both sides), but the accompanying Israeli couscous and sauteed spinach were nice.

I had no complaint at all with the frutti di mare main course ($28), a heaping mound of shrimp, clams, mussels and calamari atop linguine in an aromatic tomato broth that had the perfect essence of the sea. And my preteen daughter enjoyed her spaghetti pomodoro with meatballs ($22), two big orbs blended with ground beef, pork, pecorino cheese and a hint of breadcrumbs as a binder.

Desserts were very good, including the signature apple tart ($9), flaky and topped with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream, and a light and airy butterscotch budino ($7), served in a cognac snifter and not overly sweet.

Nothing at Prezzo made anyone in my group shout, “Wow!” but everyone left full and satisfied. Just like the good old days.

Prezzo

5560 N. Military Trail, Boca Raton (in Park Place shopping plaza)

561-314-6840 or PrezzoBoca.com

Cuisine: Italian

Cost: Moderate-expensive. Appetizers and salads cost $6-$16, pizzas $14-$18, pastas $18-28, meats and seafood $19-32, sides $6-8, desserts $7-9. Bar bites $6-8 4:30-6 p.m. weekdays. Lunch specials $12.

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, Dinner 5-9 nightly (until 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday)

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full bar with specialty cocktails and standard wine list heavy on Italian and California wines, with many bottles under $50

Noise level: Can get noisy when crowded but not unbearable

Wheelchair access: Ground level

Parking: Free lot

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

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