If you're the kind of diner who likes to know who's responsible for your meal, you're going to love Luca Bella.
Owner Mickey Maltese, a former owner at Matteo's in Hallandale Beach, will greet you at the door. He'll check in at least once during dinner, and he'll probably suggest something you may enjoy.
I love restaurants with personalities. Not personalities that come from over-the-top decor or kitschy menu items, but real honest-to-goodness personalities. That would be Maltese, who named his restaurant after his kids, Marcelo Luca and Isabella.
Chef Allen Susser, who operated Chef Allen's in this same spot for 25 years, would be proud to know that the culinary tradition he started has been passed to Maltese and chef Luciana Crosa. This isn't the Mango Gang cuisine that made Allen famous. It's excellent Italian-American fare served family-style. There's a TV in the dining room. The restaurant attracts a well-heeled neighborhood crowd that includes the older couple we spoke to who divide their time between South Florida and Mexico City.
While there's plenty of red sauce here, Crosa brings sophistication to what is essentially a classic menu of pasta, seafood, veal, chicken and grilled chops. It's not unlike the Matteo's menu, but the family-style portions aren't quite as overwhelming. We still took home all kinds of food.
Like every great Italian meal, dinner starts with crusty Italian bread. You may start with a chopped Italian salad ($10.95 half/$15.95 full). Add salami and provolone for $4. Insalata Gabriela ($13.95 half/$19.95 full), named after Maltese's wife, combines mesclun greens with goat cheese, dried cranberries, toasted almonds and cherry tomatoes in a raspberry vinaigrette.
Don't eat here and not have Mickey's meatballs ($15.95), three tender meaty globes with bright-red tomato sauce and a dollop of creamy ricotta. Shrimp oreganata ($19.95/$29.95), Italian wedding soup ($6.95) and Caesar salad ($10.95 half/$15.95 full) are all here.
Luca Bella serves a dish I can't seem to forget. It's called a burnt vegetable medley ($17.95 half/$23.95 full). Broccoli, string beans, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are first blanched and then put in an ice-water bath, drained and refrigerated. When an order comes in, they're cooked in a pan of olive oil and garlic until they start to char. Each vegetable is also available on its own and cooked in the same manner.
I don't always order pasta in Italian restaurants, but Luca Bella serves every shape imaginable, with a choice of sauce including marinara, Bolognese, oil and garlic, and white-clam sauce. Prices range from $16.95 for a half order of marinara to $25.95 for a full order of sirloin meatballs and sausage.
Instead, we shared a heaping plate of classic chicken scarpariello ($16.95 half/$25.95 full): moist chicken on the bone cooked with lots of garlic and herbs. Maltese also recommends chicken Isabella ($35.95 for two), a spicy dish with sauteed cherry peppers, mushrooms, onions, roasted garlic and toasted breadcrumbs.
We also ordered veal Francese ($21.95 half/$29/95 full), tender scallopini in butter and white wine.
There's plenty of lighter fare here, from fresh fish of the day prepared any way you like to simple grilled chicken.
Desserts feature the greatest hits of Italian eating: cheesecake ($8), tiramisu ($8) and cannoli ($8) among them.
Service at Luca Bella is excellent. It's as if Maltese miraculously passed on some of his enthusiasm to the staff.
When I mentioned on the phone to Maltese that his personality is everywhere in the restaurant, he talked about wanting to open another restaurant in Weston one day, close to his home in Davie.
"I want to set the tone and run the restaurant for the first two years," he said. "But I intend on making my manager the number one guy. Owner-operators are the best in restaurants. But I don't see that I can grow if I put myself at the front door of the restaurant every night."
Luca Bella opened last September. That means we have at least another 15 months to enjoy what Maltese brings to Aventura.