Watch anything being built, and you develop a relationship with it. Such is the case with Mancini Modern Italian, which has a Las Olas address but sits on a small side street next to several fast-casual spots that downtown Fort Lauderdale workers like myself rely on for lunch.
I watched as the short-lived Rossopomodoro closed, and a familiar name — Jack Mancini — announced that he'd be taking over the space. Paper went up on the windows and then came down. The most-striking change has been the addition of an indoor-outdoor, marble-topped bar with stools on the sidewalk. It's gorgeous. Inside, the gold-tiled pizza oven got a more-refined stone treatment. The exposed ductwork in the ceiling was replaced with a refined dropped ceiling featuring wooden beams. I only wish the artwork, which looks as if it were bought at Marshalls, were better.
For nine years, Mancini operated a namesake restaurant farther east on Las Olas until his lease came up in 2010 and he moved on. He had a short-lived spot on Delray Beach's Atlantic Avenue starting in 2004 and another restaurant called M Bar in downtown Fort Lauderdale, which closed last June.
Mancini's real career is building houses on spec, and he's sold a couple of dozen in the past 20 years. Perhaps that's what gives him stomach for all these openings and closings.
Having dined at two of Mancini's previous restaurants, I'd call his latest the best. Much of the credit goes to chef Claudio Sandri. Originally from Torino, Italy, Sandri worked alongside Washington, D.C., chef Roberto Donna, and appeared with him on an episode of "Iron Chef."
They lost. We win.
Consider the raw, marinated-beef tenderloin ($13) called "carpaccio" on the menu but sliced in thick strips, instead of the usually paper-thin slices. It's served with tarragon mustard, olives, capers and a bit of basil oil. It's like a combination of steak tartare and carpaccio.
Salads are also very good, including a Caesar ($10), served with a piece of crisp Parmesan frico and herb-ciabatta croutons, and the Mancini ($15), which features extra-thin sliced heirloom tomatoes, alongside burrata and basil extra-virgin olive oil.
Fritti calamari ($13) with chili oil and tarragon marinara looked to be undercooked, but its blond, crunchy exterior belied perfection. Roasted pork belly ($15) with Tuscan beans may have been the weakest dish we sampled, with neither of the ingredients leaving much of an impression.
We couldn't resist a vegetarian pizza ($10) from the wood-burning oven. This one was topped with roasted eggplant, grilled zucchini and herb ricotta. While Mancini's deserves to be known for more than these outstanding pies, I'd recommend the place for happy hour, when you can order a few pizzas and order a Brooklyn Lager ($5.50) or Peroni ($5) on draft. There's also a very nice cocktail list. Mancini is in the process of adding even more outdoor seating.
I know I've been to a good restaurant when I can't stop thinking about a particular dish. Such is the case with the house-made agnolotti ($24), pinched pasta pockets filled with anise-scented ricotta that's served in a sauce of braised lamb shoulder, roasted butternut squash and wilted arugula. Maybe the lamb reminded me of spring. It's a relatively small portion, and not meant for big eaters. But I can't say enough about this earthy combination of flavors. Pappardelle ($26) with rabbit sugo and truffle espuma has a similar quality.
Be sure to order roasted branzino ($29) with eggplant caponata and roasted Meyer lemon. It's cooked in the same wooden oven as the pizza, which adds just the right amount of smokiness to the delicate flesh. The roasted lemon is not only a dramatic garnish, but also a nice dash of citrus. Tender, pistachio-crusted rack of lamb ($38) is another triumph, served alongside rosemary-parsnip puree and simple lamb jus. Pan-roasted salmon ($28) paled next to these big-flavored dishes.
Dessert is just as good as the savory side of the menu, whether it be the Italian beignets known as bomboloni ($11), with sweet espresso panna cotta, or a chocolate amaretti cake ($12), with hazelnut gelato and salted caramel sauce.
Food this good deserves consistently top-notch service. But here, it tends to be a little too casual. I'm not worried. With just two months under its belt, Mancini Modern Italian has plenty of time to improve. I hope to be eating here for a very long time.
401 E. Las Olas Blvd., Suite 150, Fort Lauderdale
Cost: Expensive-very expensive
Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner Monday-Saturday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Can be noisy
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Street and garage parking