'Don't forget to call Fabio'

You can hear the delight in Fabio Cracco's voice when he tells you that his modest restaurant has just 45 seats. It feels even smaller. He opened it one year ago on the lobby level of the Roselli Building in Oakland Park after five years as co-owner of Panaretto, a three-times-the-size operation on 17th Street in Fort Lauderdale.

"I wanted to go with a size that I could run myself," he says of his La Cucina Veneziana.

Here, Cracco tries to greet every guest who walks through the door. At lunchtime one day, he even took our order. At dinnertime, he greets many guests by name, and his mobile phone number is on every business card. You call Cracco not only to make reservations, but also for any special requests you may have, perhaps an unusual sauce you had on a trip to Italy. Having spent eight years as a yacht chef, he's well versed in fulfilling cravings.


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You'll need that cell phone number — 954-804-3479 — to make sure Cracco will be serving canederli, the dish that leaves everyone wanting more and recommending it to others. It's what got me to visit La Cucina Veneziana.

For simplicity's sake, Cracco calls them meatballs. But they're actually made with four kinds of minced salami, five kinds of cheese, several mushroom varieties, and bread that's been soaked in milk. Formed into balls, they're poached in vegetable broth and served two to an order and topped with crispy fried sage leaves and a simple brown-butter sauce.

Canederli ($11.80) are deceptively rich. They are a mash-up of cheese ball, meat spread and matzo ball. In this case, bread replaces matzo. You must order them.

Order a caprese salad with Burrata ($15.50), and you get a sharing-sized platter of sliced tomatoes, crusty bread and creamy cheese drizzled with a balsamic dressing. Order antipasto all'Italiana ($12.90 for two), and you get a platter of thinly sliced Italian prosciutto and cheese that you'll want to linger over with a glass wine. It's not much of a wine list, but plenty of folks carry in their own for a modest $10 corkage fee.

A good portion of the menu is devoted to bruschetta. Cracco has created 16 varieties ($13.50-$18.90), including La Tortufona (tomato sauce, mozzarella, truffle cream, mushrooms and Parmesan) and Hawaiian (tomato sauce, mozzarella, pineapple and ham). They are his answer to pizza, and they are great for sharing as an appetizer with six slices of bread per order.

If a restaurant offers pasta with Amatriciana sauce, you can be pretty sure I'll order it. Especially when the Italian-accented chef who's standing in front of you is about to make it. This version with penne ($15.50) exceeded my expectations. It seems simple enough — tomato sauce, crushed red pepper and bacon — but at many restaurants the bacon is overdone or the heat is underdone. Cracco nails it.

Other classic sauces on the menu include carbonara ($15.80), Bolognese ($14.90) and vongole ($17.90).

Chicken ($17.50) or veal scaloppini ($21.50) can be ordered with a choice of sauce: piccata, lemon, white wine or Marsala. The chicken is sliced wonderfully thin. Piccata, with capers and white wine, was exceptional. Marsala was a little weak, but still very good. Strangely, on a Saturday at 8 p.m., the restaurant had run out of veal.

Listen carefully to specials, or you might miss the beef dish ($20.80) I had the other night. Top round is wrapped around carrots and peppers and very slowly braised. It has the flavor of pot roast, but the texture of a much more expensive cut of meat. Another time, Cracco served a veal stew ($18.80) on top of polenta. This is authentic Italian.

Desserts include a very good tiramisu served in a goblet ($8) and an unfortunate cheesecake ($8) we were told was a combination of ricotta and cream cheese. It tasted like an experiment gone wrong. I don't recommend it.

Cracco's team of servers seems imbued with a homey sense of Italian hospitality. They are efficient as well as personable. I can't remember the last time I was handed a restaurant's business card with the name of both of our servers written on the back.

"Come back and see us," one waitress said as she handed me the card. "And don't forget to call Fabio if you have any special requests."

jtanasychuk@SouthFlorida.com or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SouthFlorida.com/sup and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats.

3471 N. Federal Highway, Oakland Park

954-990-5435, LaCucinaVeneziana.net

Cuisine: Italian