In the little city where I grew up, more than 10 percent of the population can trace their roots back to Italy. I had my first spumoni at Francis Desantis' birthday party one street over. We bought cold cuts at an Italian deli that started making sausage in the 1920s. As I grew older, I shared nips of grappa with wine-making grandfathers in cold basements.
All of which is to say that arriving at Mediterraneo Café and Grill felt familiar and familial at the same time.
That's what the Maggiore family intended. They are Carmelo and Catherine Maggiore, and their sons Michael and Joseph. Carmelo emigrated from Sicily to New Jersey in 1959. Catherine's father, originally from Sicily, settled in Illinois, where she born. Soon, Joseph's Sicilian fiancé, Francesca, will be joining the business.
The Maggiores have owned restaurants in Lodi, N.J., and Springfield, Ill., before deciding a few years back that they'd had enough of Northern winters. They opened Mediterraneo one year ago to serve Sicilian specialties, something they didn't see a lot of in South Florida.
"All of our life, we've always worked with our parents and we continue the family tradition," Michael Maggiore says. "We take turns in the kitchen. In the morning, we prepare the sausage and the bread. We like to cook and also entertain the public."
The bread in question is crusty on the outside and soft inside. It's so popular that many customers make arrangements to buy loaves to bring home. We certainly asked that the remainder of our bread basket be wrapped up.
That bread was just the delivery system we were looking for to devour the house-made Sicilian caponata ($8.99) with eggplant, olives, capers, celery and carrots. It's more stew than pickle, and made by Catherine in small batches.
You'll find it on several antipasto platters including Antipasto Italiano ($11.99), prosciutto, mortadella, red pepper cheese and parmesan. There are lightly breaded fried artichokes ($9.99), eggplant parmesan ($9.99) and a seafood platter of shrimp, smoked salmon and seafood salad ($19.99).
As you'd expect at a Sicilian restaurant, seafood is everywhere on the menu. And nowhere is it more successful than in pasta con sarde ($25.99), a deeply flavored, almost sweet and sour sauce of fresh sardines, onions, raisins and fennel tossed with bucatini. It's topped with toasted bread crumbs. If you're not up for a full order of pasta, they gladly serve half orders.
Sicily's classic vegetarian penne alla Norma ($14.99) is here. It's a mixture of eggplant, parmesan, ricotta salata and tomatoes. Bucatini all'Amatriciana ($14.99) is dotted with the Italian cured pork known as speck along with tomatoes and a hint of chile. But the signature pasta combines gemelli with sword fish, mint and tomatoes ($18.99). It's delicious.
Swordfish and mussels appear on the menu several times. I watched more than one happy customer dig into mussels in a tomato wine sauce ($18.99), using that house-made bread to sop up briny juice.
The Maggiores also make their own Italian sausage, so we ordered the Sicilian trio platter ($25.99), a kind of mixed grill with sausage, chicken and pork. It's accompanied by simple potatoes and a little salad. I'm told they reserve their fennel-laced sausage for those who know what to order. I wish I'd known.
The 48-seat restaurant is homey and dimly lighted, but it's nothing fancy. The wine list could use some work, but many people take advantage of the low $7.50 corkage fee and bring their own.
For dessert, there's tiramisu ($6.50) with creamy, coffee-laced mascarpone and cocoa powder garnish. The cannoli shells and ricotta cheese filling ($4.75) are made in-house. Don't miss them.
Altogether, it's a bit of Sicily in South Florida.
Mediterraneo Café and Grill
420 N. Federal Highway, Pompano Beach
Hours: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday, lunch Tuesday-Saturday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Moderate
Outside smoking: No
For kids: High chairs, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot
jtanasychuk@SouthFlorida.com or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SouthFlorida.com/sup and follow him Twitter.com @FloridaEats.