At the risk of overstatement, I think Valentino — in its new location — is one of the most important restaurants to open in Fort Lauderdale in years.
I don't know where to start. But how about its unmarked location in the former Tunnel Tire building just south of Las Olas Boulevard? Or its comfortably chic interior by Fort Lauderdale designer Eric Dyer? What about those top-notch servers in white chef's jackets?
Then, there's Giovanni Rocchio, Valentino's chef and owner, who is creating cutting-edge Italian food at a level not easily found in South Florida.
To start at the beginning is to start with Rocchio's father, Tony, who opened a Valentino in Plantation back in 1974, after moving south from New York. He named it after Rudolph Valentino, the actor who Rocchio says every Italian guy of his father's generation aspired to be. The younger Rocchio grew up in the business and then headed back to the Big Apple for a few years to cook and learn. A few years after his dad retired, Giovanni opened his updated version of Valentino a few blocks south of its current location.
It was an instant hit, but not big enough for the chef's ambitions or his affluent customer base, who longed for a bar to wait for their tables instead of out front next to the gas station. With financial backing from two of those customers — Mike Maroone, president and CEO of AutoNation, and Jose Zambrano, a banker — the current version of Valentino opened in August. Seating has doubled to just more than 100. Staff also doubled.
At dinner the other night, Fort Lauderdale never felt more like a big city, with the whirl of traffic outside the big windows and a glamorous, white-washed dining room that has an open kitchen at its center. The six seats looking directly in are the most coveted for the Food Network generation. The room is a cross between Capri and one of the showstopping homes in the nearby Rio Vista neighborhood. Valentino now has a full-liquor license and a cocktail menu worthy of the Rocchios' creativity. The wine list is a work in progress, but we settled on a meritaggio with the help of a friendly sommelier.
Menus are housed in Hermes-orange covers the size of a woman's evening bag. You'll want to order everything.
We started with calamari artichoke tart ($18), which really isn't a tart at all but a fresh salad of bitter greens, roasted calamari, artichokes, garlic, pepper flakes and balsamic dressing. It's tart-shaped. Scallops ($18), roasted on a plancha, were an appetizer special. They're served with butternut puree, Brussels sprouts, leek fondue and roasted chestnuts.
At our waiter's suggestion, we shared a transcendent order of the twisted-pasta shape known as trofie ($28) in a sauce of ground cuttlefish, scallops and shrimp with white wine, baby leeks and peas. It's like a seafood Bolognese to which a few drops of coloratura, an Italian fish sauce, have been added.
Rocchio's commitment to the core of Italian cuisine starts with the best ingredients he can buy or make in his own kitchen. He rolls his own pasta and has the tendinitis to prove it. Langostino ravioli ($24) is filled with house-made uni butter and langostino. The sauce is a combination of pork jus and shellfish broth, lemongrass and ginger. It's served with foie-gras butter and a squirt of lemon juice to lessen the richness of the dish.
Grilled veal chop ($48) is accompanied by house-made potato gnocchi and morel-mushroom sauce. Grouper ($36) gets braised artichokes, jumbo lump crab meat and fregola, Italy's version of couscous.
While every dish was brilliantly conceived, I was most impressed with a rabbit special ($38). Two loin portions are stuffed with spinach, sundried tomatoes, pistachio and liver and then wrapped in speck. The leg meat is diced for a kind of cacciatore with fried porcini mushrooms. Those two preparations are served alongside crispy polenta and pickled red onion.
He also has a star in pastry chef Max Santiago, who most recently taught at Miami Culinary Institute. His menu ($10 each) might include the spiced-pumpkin panna cotta parfait, layers of cranberry-strawberry compote, marshmallow sorbet and graham streusel. Order Santiago's bomboloni: doughnuts, filled with blueberry jam and served alongside lemon-honey ricotta sauce. How does brown-butter-and-sage-apple-filled fried ravioli sound? They get a touch of pecorino as well as Marsala toffee sauce and cinnamon-truffle foam. These are Italian desserts reimagined by one of South Florida's best.
Rocchio is busy. He wants to do a lower-priced, small-plates spot next door, and turned his old spot down the street into a pizzeria called Osteria Acqua and Farina.
In the meantime, to anyone who's ever badmouthed Fort Lauderdale for its shortage of sophisticated restaurants, welcome to Valentino.
email@example.com or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SunSentinel.com/sup and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats.
620 S. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale