Here are two tips for finding a good restaurant.
1. Look for a place with some years under its belt.
2. Find restaurants near, but not in, the wealthiest ZIP codes.
If you happen to be on the dismal stretch of Dixie Highway just north of Forest Hill Boulevard in West Palm Beach, you'll find a restaurant that fits both criteria. Marcello's La Sirena will celebrate its 30th year in 2016. It's not far from Palm Beach or Boca Raton, and even on a Tuesday night in early November, the swells of Palm Beach County knew that this is perhaps the best Italian restaurant in South Florida.
Marcello Fiorentino opened the restaurant in 1986, having made the move from Long Island to South Florida. When he died eight years later, son Marcello Fiorentino Jr. stepped in to carry on a very fine tradition. Fiorentino, who cooks every dish, and wife Diane, who manages the dining room, run the place with gracious precision. They're assisted by a team of waiters in beige jackets who also act as food runners, bus boys, and wine and water pourers.
The restaurant has about it a relaxed formality. With just 60 seats, set close together like a big-city restaurant, it's for people who expect and receive great service and great food.
Fiorentino tells me that his father would have described the menu as "continental," that one-time catchall for nicer restaurants with French pretensions. Marcello's still serves escargot ($10). I see Marcello's as an Italian restaurant, but not of the present-day rustic variety. The kitchen relies on good ingredients, used judiciously, to create food that's equal parts old-fashioned American and authentically Italian .
They serve both chicken and veal scaloppini, for example, in a variety of sauces, including one with arugula, fennel, radicchio and extra virgin olive oil. My favorite, however, was first made by the elder Fiorentino: Involtini di pollo saltrani ($26). It's stuffed with veal, spinach and cheese, and served with black truffle sauce. It is the definition of richness.
If you want to taste what will become your benchmark for veal saltimbocca, try the alla romana ($26) offered here. Veal escalopes are topped with prosciutto and sage and sautéed in white wine and veal stock. One of two beef dishes on the menu is Dan's steak ($38), a New York strip grilled and plated with puttanesca-style spicy tomato sauce with olives, capers and oregano.
Among the seafood dishes the night we dined was branzino ($38), two fillets lightly floured, sautéed until the skin got crispy and then finished in a hot oven. It was accompanied by a quickly sautéed mixture of arugula, fennel, grape tomatoes and olive oil. This is outstanding.
Side dishes include Belgian salsify sautéed in brown butter ($10). If you're unfamiliar with salsify, it's a root vegetable that tastes like a combination of carrot and parsnip. Skin-on Bliss potatoes ($8), sautéed in butter and parsley, have creamy insides.
We'd started with very nice Littleneck clams ($14), topped with seasoned bread crumbs, olive oil and white wine. There was a simple arugula salad ($13) with shaved Parmigiano, grape tomatoes and perfect olive oil and lemon dressing.
Who could resist crespelle ai quattro formaggi ($10 for half/$18 for full)? It's a crepe filled with fontina, ricotta, Parmigiano and mozzarella served with incredible tomato sauce.
The kitchen offers a stuffed pasta of the day. The night we dined, it was ravioli filled with chunks of lobster and served with the lightest of tomato cream sauces. There are nine pasta preparations, and select shapes are available gluten-free.
Desserts in Italian restaurants rarely measure up to their savory counterparts, but at Marcello's, they are every bit as good. There was a light lemon panna cotta ($15) with fresh raspberries for fans of citrus. The cheesecake ($15) is made with creamy buffalo ricotta, and torta caprese ($12) is essentially a decadent flourless chocolate cake with just the right amount of sugar.
Since the last time I dined at Marcello's, the bar upfront has been given a new quartzite countertop, which makes it more comfortable for guests who want to eat at the bar. The restaurant itself has just 60 seats. And for all its understated elegance, it was built as a drive-in restaurant. Fiorentino says it was either a Dairy Queen or a Mr. Hamburger, depending on which West Palm old timer you ask.
Fiorentino believes his father, who died at the age of 65, would love how the restaurant's menu and decor has evolved over the years.
"So many of the dishes are still his," he says. "He would recognize it and be very happy with it, because it's still the way a restaurant should be."
Marcello's La Sirena
6316 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach
Hours: Dinner Monday through Saturday
Reservations: Strongly suggested
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Pleasantly conversational
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Boosters, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Guarded lot