Overall impression: Like Italian governments, many South Florida Italian restaurants come and go before most people can even learn their names. Once in a while, though, you run into one that has that idiosyncratic edge that raises it above the clutter, and you hope it has the staying power to become a local institution.
An early tip-off that things would be different at Ovenella, the year-and-a-half-old restaurant in Boca Raton, was when we asked our attentive, well-informed waiter what part of Italy he hailed from. "Istanbulogna," he said with a chuckle. Once we learned that the chef, Mennan Tekeli, was also of Turkish origin, the clever twist on classic dishes began to make sense.
Ovenella is sleek and casual, with modern art on the walls and a brightly lit atmosphere. A wood-fired, brick pizza oven tucked into one corner adds coziness, and a long bar, where diners are welcome, runs along the back. An ample covered terrace faces South Federal Highway and is perfect for dining on cool winter evenings. Thankfully, there are no murals of Vesuvius, Roman columns or bunches of grapes, and no cheesy mandolin music. The decor is attractive, simple and doesn't insult the intelligence.
Starters: The appetizers are an especially strong suit at Ovenella, and of these, one not to miss is the antipasto platter for two ($19), which is arranged like a garden of earthly delights on a long, narrow plate. It's packed with an enticing assortment of cheeses, sopressata (Calabrian sausage), bresaola (paper-thin air-cured salted beef), several kinds of olives, yellow tomatoes, arugula greens and capers the size of grapes, and it's anchored at each end with small pots of eggplant and roasted-red-pepper tapenades. This could make a light meal for two when combined with the complementary basket of garlic bread and spreadable roasted-garlic clove.
The beef-tenderloin carpaccio ($14) is a ring of thin wafers of practically raw, high-quality beef, garnished with garlic mustard, frico (house-made cheese crisps) and a mound of arugula greens. The ingredients complement one another beautifully, and it is their thoughtful combination that makes this otherwise quiet dish sing.
Entree excellence: Of course, we had to try the angry prawns ($26) because of the name, and here chef Tekeli strutted his imagination. The fat shrimp were chili-roasted, but were only spicy enough to demand attention. They were cooled by a buttery pile of perfectly sauteed escarole and an aromatic dollop of orzo primavera. The shrimp were a little rubbery, but this was a minor flaw, and possibly an isolated one.
The roasted salmon ($24) was subtle and exquisite. Adorned with gremolata (a chopped mixture of lemon zest, parsley and garlic traditionally used to accompany osso buco) and basil-champagne butter (which is reminiscent of mild hollandaise), it again demonstrated Tekeli's talents for combining unlikely flavors with great success. From the pasta list, spaghetti Bolognese ($19) was an elegant departure from the expected fare. It was very light on the tomatoes, and instead emphasized the wine-braised beef, veal and pork. The pasta tasted as though it had been prepared freshly for the dish. The one disappointment was the forever-braised short ribs ($26), which had been highly touted by Aziz, our faux-Italian waiter. It consisted of a large, stringy boulder of meat that reminded us of overcooked pot roast. It was partially vindicated, however, by a top-notch mushroom-truffle risotto and perfectly cooked asparagus spears. Our advice is to simply avoid this dish. There are so many other more rewarding items to choose from.
Sweet! Desserts are all house-made, and we followed Aziz's directive to try the Granny Smith apple-tart ($10, and really more French than Italian, but who cares?), whose robust flavor was tamed by a drizzle of caramel and a generous amount of cinnamon ice cream. The crispy toasted-almond basket ($8) was quite unusual: almonds had been ground into a paste, baked and formed into a vessel to hold fresh berries along with intense scoops of raspberry and mango sorbet. This disintegrated when cut into for sharing, but the shards of crispy sweet almond mixed with the sorbet, again, reflected the fertile culinary imagination behind their concept.
499 S. Federal Highway, Boca Raton
Hours: Lunch and dinner Monday-Friday, dinner only Saturday and Sunday
Credit cards: All
Sound level: Moderate
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Special children's menu, highchairs
Specials: Happy hour 4-7 p.m. Monday-Friday (buy one drink, get one free; various pizzas and appetizers available at a discount)