Review: A square deal at Sicilian Oven

 

★★★

I had pizza on the brain, but not in my belly, after the troubled recent inaugural edition of the Fort Lauderdale Pizza Festival. Like other attendees who felt short-sliced, I wound up hankering and hunting for cheesy goodness in the aftermath. Such is the power of pizza. It is America’s ultimate communal comfort food, the stuff of teen sleepovers, college cram sessions and election night newsrooms. When done right, it is ephemeral. When done wrong, you just shrug your shoulders and still end up eating a slice or two, particularly when it’s 2 a.m. and last call has passed.

Fortunately Sicilian Oven does pizza right. It also does many other Italian-American and Sicilian favorites right, including meatballs, rice balls, marinated chicken wings, fried calamari and a variety of eggplant dishes. I had heard many good things about Sicilian Oven, a growing regional chain, but had never been to one until last weekend, when I visited the fifth and latest outpost at The Fountains shops in Plantation, which opened last year.

At first glance, one might think Sicilian Oven is just a knockoff of Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, the wildly successful pizzeria that started in Fort Lauderdale in 2002 and now has 67 restaurants in eight states, including New York. Sicilian Oven started in Lighthouse Point in 2008 and has expanded to Coral Springs, Aventura, Boca Raton and Plantation. A Fort Lauderdale location is scheduled to open on East Oakland Park Boulevard in May.

Anthony’s and Sicilian Oven are similar — pizza and wings done to burnt exterior crispness in hot ovens — but there are differences. Anthony’s uses coal and Sicilian Oven uses wood, Florida white oak. And Sicilian Oven has a more extensive menu and greater pizza varieties, including thick crust “Nona’s” square pies, also known as Sicilian pizza.

When Sicilian Oven started, it did not serve Sicilian pies. “Customers would come in and say, ‘Hey Sicilian Oven, you got Sicilian pizza?’ ” founder Ralph DiSalvo recalls. “I got tired of people asking.”

After five years and much tinkering, DiSalvo introduced the Sicilian-style Nona pizzas, baked in metal trays. Nona means grandmother in Italian, and these are good enough to send to the old country. These aren’t as thick and puffy as some Sicilian pizzas in DiSalvo’s native Brooklyn, a concession to the challenges of a 725-degree wood-burning oven. “You get so much moisture coming out of that dough, it gets a little spongy,” DiSalvo says. “It’s not perfect all the time.”

But in imperfection there is beauty, or at least there was with the Hit Man square pizza ($26) that we ordered. It was crunchy and chewy and spicy and pretty, topped with shredded Grande mozzarella, sausage, garlic, red peppers and long hot green finger peppers. The tomato sauce was perfectly balanced, not sweet and not acidic. The colors of the Italian flag were framed in black, the burnt edges of outer crust tasting more like smoke than ash. The underside was a little soggy but not terribly so.

The pizza was good at the table, but even better later. Some pizzas don’t travel well. But the Sicilian Oven square is that rare bird that improves with age. When reheated on a wire rack in my toaster oven it was nearly perfect, with the moisture evaporating to leave an airy, crunchy crust. Breakfast pizza never tasted so good.

The round thin-crust pizza we ordered, The Lieutenant ($19), didn’t make it to breakfast, its classic mix of fresh mushrooms, roasted red peppers and onions all gone by dessert. It wasn’t ultra thin, with a bit of chewy heft, strong enough to eat by hand. Unfortunately, the non-New Yorkers who came with me used forks and knives. Heathens. Thankfully, they used their hands to devour the surprisingly good Nutella dessert pizza ($8), a better after-dinner choice than ordinary mini cannolis ($5).

I enjoyed my meal at Sicilian Oven, a loud, family-friendly place with an open kitchen in the back, outdoor seating in the front, a counter serving gelato near the entrance, and a handsome wooden and granite bar with a good selection of draft beers and wines by the glass. Service is brisk and efficient. I also enjoyed speaking with DiSalvo, who launched Sicilian Oven with partner Andrew Garavuso after last decade’s real estate and financial meltdown.

DiSalvo grew up in Bensonhurst, and he still fondly recalls the slices of Lenny’s on 86th Street “when it was still owned by Italians,” and trips to Spumoni Gardens for square pies. His family moved to South Florida when he was 11 and started DiSalvo’s pizzerias. At one point there were five DiSalvo’s, now only one remains in Hollywood. Ralph broke away from the family business to get into real estate, but the Great Recession sent him back to pizza. He abandoned New York style pies for “hand-crafted artisanal pizza,” because “that’s where the growth is.” The menu also pays tribute to the Palermo roots of his father, with Sicilian eggplant caponata ($7) and firecracker calamari ($9), fried squid mixed with hot cherry peppers and tomato sauce.

The Plantation location is good for a convivial Sunday supper, with many televisions for those who want to watch sports and tunes piped in over speakers. Prepare to shout. And eat.

I loved the rice ball ($4 each), a golden-fried orb of creamy rice with a ground meat and melted mozzarella center, served with a Bolognese dipping sauce. It brought me back to the pizzerias of my Brooklyn youth. I also liked the meatballs ($11 for two), moist and flavorful with a blend of ground beef, veal and pork, bathed in red sauce and served with a side dollop of ricotta and pesto. The kids loved the Tuscan fries ($6), with parmesan and truffle oil, and I loved the shrimp Palermo with pasta ($21), plump and juicy jumbo shrimp coated with bread crumbs and broiled with lemon, butter and white wine.

There was spirited discussion at my table about whose salad is better, Sicilian Oven’s Sicilian salad ($12.50 with gorgonzola) or Anthony’s. I’ll take Sicilian Oven’s, with its romaine lettuce, tomatoes, roasted peppers, walnuts, olives and subtle vinegar dressing. And there was debate about whose wings soar higher. Sicilian Oven’s ($17 large) are juicier, marinated for 24 hours in garlic, olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper. Both come draped in roasted onions. But Anthony’s gets my wing vote because of its better and crisper focaccia. The dud bread accompanying Sicilian Oven’s wings was the weakest link of the meal.

I sense a rivalry brewing. I don’t know if pizza maniacs will soon sport Team Anthony’s and Team Sicilian shirts. All I know is South Florida is better off with these two chains around. Just as New York had its Ray’s Pizza vs. Famous Ray’s slice battles, and its pie wars between John’s, Patsy’s, Grimaldi’s and Totonno’s, there’s always room for passionate argument when it comes to decent pizza.

Sicilian Oven

801 S. University Drive, Plantation (in the Fountains plaza)

954-533-1047, or sicilianoven.com

Cuisine: Pizza, Italian

Cost: Inexpensive to moderate. Appetizers cost $4 to $18. Pizzas $12 to $28. Pastas $13 to $21. Desserts $4 to $8

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-10 p.m. Sunday

Reservations: No. For groups five or more, call ahead to be placed on list

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Beer and wine only

Sound level: Loud when full, even with open air front

Kids: Family friendly, children’s menu $5-6

Wheelchair access: Ground level

Parking: Free lot

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mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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