Via Verdi Cucina Rustica – Miami, FL

Authenticity as it pertains to food, has become an increasingly important quality to bloggers, and even critics over the years. After all, as people become more adventurous in their taste, their quest becomes all about finding the “most authentic” version of the cuisine in question. This is in stark contrast to how we thought about ethnic cuisine 50 or 60 years ago, when immigrants had to tailor their dishes to suit our timid taste buds. The clearest example of this phenomenon is Chinese food, a cuisine that historically exudes bold flavor, vibrant color and generous use of spices. Sadly, here in America, our inexperienced palates have transformed it into a bland parody of itself.

No cuisine is immune to the changes that inevitably take place when a dish reaches our shores for the first time. Chef Ed Lee, in a recent “Mind of a Chef” episode, explained that this isn’t always a bad thing, and that we shouldn’t necessarily be chasing authenticity, but embracing the new cuisines that spawn from this metamorphosis. These are, after all, what make up “American food”, not only burgers, fries and apple pies.

While I agree with Chef Lee, I also feel that it’s possible to find truly authentic food here in the States if you care to look. It may use local ingredients, but that doesn’t make it any less genuine, as all the best food cultures adapt to new surroundings. The search for such food however, is important, as those who can’t afford to travel regularly, shouldn’t be deprived of the wonderful flavors from faraway lands. Even if you can pony up for a trip, you shouldn’t have to jump on a plane to get a taste of your favorite dish.

Via Verdi spread

Thankfully there are others who share my crazy Utopian ideals, and luckily for me, they’re Italian. A couple of years ago, the exuberant Carro brothers, Fabrizio and Nicola, along with mixologist wizard Cristiano Vezzoli, opened Via Verdi, with the simple goal of serving authentic Italian dishes, with quality ingredients and an exacting eye for quality. It’s a recipe touted by many, but executed by few. This trio however, succeeded, and has created a restaurant with the rare ability to transport its diners with a single bite.

I hesitated to write about Via Verdi after my first two visits, not because they were undeserving, quite the opposite in fact. The meals impressed me so much, that I feared this shining star would quickly burn itself out. So many times after having a great meal, I’ll return, only to find out the chef has left for greener pastures, or the owners, smelling success, have grown too quickly, leaving the quality lacking. This hasn’t been the case at Via Verdi. The team, experienced from their time at Miami mainstays, Quattro and Segafredo, have kept themselves focused on the original mission.

The menu is simple, no need for a paragraph when a handful of words will do, the ingredients speak for themselves. The polenta with truffle Parmesan sauce, in its tiny cup, commands attention as the wonderful aroma of truffles fills the air. Other fried dishes like the beautifully crisp arancini, or the sumptuous veal polpettine highlight Via Verdi’s mastery of tomato sauce. Take note other Italian restaurants, this is how you make tomato sauce. You can tell just by smelling that sauce is on point. Whether it’s their classic marinara, or fiery arrabiatta, the distinctive tang of San Marzano tomatoes is present and complemented with the perfect touch of sugar and spices.

Tonnato di vitello, a dish easily ruined by low quality ingredients and overpowering sauce, is a must. Via Verdi’s is a graceful rendition of the classic Northern Italian dish, light and refreshing, with hints of citrus and a briny pop from the capers.

Via Verdi pasta

Pasta of course, displays the same rigorous attention to detail as the rest of the menu. From herbaceous spinach gnudi covered in that wonderful sauce, to strozzapretti in rich and gamey braised osso buco, quality reigns. Even the vegetarian choices like a pecorino and beet ravioli in a zucchini sauce, are excellent. Naturally, all the pasta is made in house.

But it wouldn’t be a true Northern Italian restaurant without Piedmont truffles, the knobby little nodules that bring grown men to tears as they empty their wallets in the hope of just one fleeting taste.  People like to throw the word truffle on the menu, but few actually show you the goods, fewer still trust their diners enough to leave said goods on the table unattended. I was fortunate to pay a visit to Via Verdi on a night when white truffles were indeed on the menu. A delicious but simple risotto dutifully served to deliver the tasty tubers, as you wouldn’t want anything to overtake the delicate yet assertive flavors that every great truffle bestows.

White truffle spread

While dessert , sadly doesn’t come with white Alba truffles (although I didn’t ask), it’s absolutely worth saving room for. Panna cotta with passion fruit and strawberries should be on the table if it’s available. Another fantastic option is the Bunet, a chocolate amaretti flan with caramel sauce that doesn’t kill you with sweetness, but leaves you feeling cozy and warm.

Via Verdi dolce

Is Via Verdi authentic? Absolutely. Does it matter? Heck yes it matters! That’s not to say that every restaurant serving ethnic cuisine needs to stick hard and fast to the rules of the homeland, but for those that do, and do it well, I applaud you. As I’ve said time and again, a meal, when done right, has the ability to transport you, and the boys at Via Verdi are offering flavor trips to Alba with every  dish.

Via Verdi Cucina Rustica Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Orlando Food Crawl 2014: Part II

ead-orlando-food-crawl-2014 2.0

We arrived early at East End Market just in time for Sangria Hour over at the adjoining Txokos. While most of the crew had to cure their shakes, I set out to explore the market while waiting for a couple of chumpy stragglers to vacate our spot at Kappo. Not that any of us are big tymers like Bird Man or Mannie Fresh, but we “still fresh” and because of that, reserved the entire restaurant…all eight seats. (For an introduction to Kappo, see our review)

For those who don’t know, East End Market is a food-centric co-op/incubator for small upstarts. The owner has provided a handful of spaces for small business owners to develop and demonstrate their concepts. It’s been a proven success as pretty much every booth is always buzzing with shoppers. I decided to do another mini cleanse with a small glass of lemongrass, starfruit Kombucha from Joybird Juicery.

Out of all the places on the crawl, the crew was most looking forward to Kappo. All eight members of said crew are live free or die harder with a vengeance sushi connoisseurs. If you want to experience the experience we experienced, you need to set it up through their email process. I’ve had a nice back and forth with the reservations department coordinating this and previous visits with excellent results. They have hospitality down on all fronts in a dynamic way, from planning to meal execution.

Let me reiterate, if you’re looking for the girlfriend experience in a way that only food can provide, phrases such as, “money is no object”, “foie-forward”, “don’t hold back”, “bring the uni” and “its imperative you make it rain shaved truffles” need to be part of your conversation when you set up meal.

Just so we’re clear, you may or may not be able to have a meal in a similar scope to what we had. We ate omakase style. There are no menus. We have no say. The whole idea is to trust the chef. If you want to order off of their pretty incredible menu, I think your best bet is to go to the first come first served weekday hour where everything can be had a la carte. If you want a meal only a small group of people will ever have, do what we did. You’ll feel like Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones in the 1994 action thriller, “Blown Away.”

Starting with the first course, they were definitely “foie-forward” with a lavish preparation of cured duck liver torchon, hidden inside a caviar jar with dollop of beluga, and a small layer of preserved kumquat marmalade underneath to add some sweetness as well as acidity.

Kappo spread 1

And so began the debate of which course was best at Kappo. It would be hard to top to the silky foie, except maybe with the most luxurious chawan mushi ever assembled. The custard, flavored with dashi, had a deep mahogany layer of truffle demi-glace that was so heavily reduced it approached life-threatening levels of pungency and earthiness. I almost started believing in umami. The custard itself was nice and wobbly, not too dense, which played perfectly with a couple of tongues of Atlantic uni that hovered gently over the truffle sauce. We assumed that the dish set in front of us was complete as is. We were dead wrong. The chef started walking around with a handful of whole black Alba winter truffles, shaving them with a microplane in the general direction of our bowls, without fear of consequence. This might have been the moment where my, “It’s imperative you make it rain shaved truffles” comment came into play. James wasted no time positioning himself to have truffles shorn straight into his mouth. Chef obliged with some paper-thin wafers as he pulled out the industrial strength slicer. I felt like Kurt Russell in the 1992 fire related action-thriller motion picture, when I was surprised to find truffles floating in my sake due to the “Backdraft”. Studying shaved truffles up close is such a beautiful and mesmerizing thing, like the most delicious Catacomb you could ever traverse. You should try it sometime.

The chefs kept the pace with a warm and cold sunomuno style salad with a heaping pile of cured salmon roe and marinated then seared scallop as the base. More uni fulfilled the request to “bring the uni”, this one coming from the Pacific. You could really tasty the subtle nuances between the different regions the sea urchins hail from. The Atlantic was more buttery, almost without that sense of coming from the sea at all, which did pair well with the custard. The Pacific was briny, with a stronger presence which worked just as well with in the sunomuno preparation. No salad would be complete without roughage. Chef placed a single nasturtium leaf coated in spritzing of kaffir lime essence. It reminded me of the way morning dew sticks to a flower just before sunrise.

The next dish was a fried enigma. What was this? One bite of the milky interior and I knew immediately. Milk poached sweetbreads fried in coarse panko crumbs for maximum texture. They were served with small heap of pickled julienned Asian pear, and a pungent nutta sauce of hot mustard, vinegar and blanched baby bok choy to create perfect harmony.

Kappo spread 2

Next was the sushi course. We were treated with a sampling of Artic char, flounder and waqyu strip loin, all topping the most succulent nubs of tranquil rice at just the right lukewarm temperature. I imagine if I ever got a chance to try out a 3 Michelin star sushi joint, the rice would be similar. The fish and beef weren’t ice cold and neither was the rice. I think serving cold sushi masks the true flavor, thankfully they were both at a more resting temperature. It goes to show that if you’re working with a superior product, you don’t need to put it into a cryogenic sleep to keep it fresh.  I can confirm  our resident “rice” guy Thai was spotted shedding tears of joy.

Yes, you can go to Kappo and only eat sushi, and I know that you’d go home praising yourself for the amazing decisions you’ve made. With that said, if you don’t allow the chef to breathe in a way that promotes creativity, you’ll miss out on a rare experience. The meal was inherently Japanese, as this is technically a Japanese food stall. Though, the influence of French, Korean, Italian and American for that matter, all played out seamlessly during the course of the meal.

Finally, as part of the chefs tasting we were served dessert. The chef handling pastry is a master. She keeps the flow of the meal intact by not killing the senses with overly sweet morsels, and she presents the final treats like a goodbye kiss. Not with a lame handshake, but with two kisses on each cheek. Starfruit paté de fruit, green tea mochi, pistachio and cocoa-matcha truffles were all delightful in their own unique way. Together they formed a Voltron bonbon.

It was time to say goodbye to the four chef team of Kappo to hit our last stop.

With our bellies distended, we saddled up to a hightop at the ever-loving Cask & Larder. Fullness never stops a true eater from ordering something that sounds tasty. Pogo eyed a scrumptious tamale with roasted goat, buttermilk curds, and pickled sweet peppers, while me and James couldn’t resist the lamb ribs, with a sticky BBQ sauce, smoked collard greens and quick B&B pickles. The rest of the table was not going to let us down.

Cask & Larder goat tamale

They pooled together what room they had left in their tummies and ordered an impressive tower from the raw bar. Rock shrimp scampi, roasted oysters with slivers of uni, oysters on the half with mignonette, steamed cherrystone clams with tostones and an aji amarillo aioli, and slabs of raw tuna coated with tahini, chiles, Asian pear and crispy maitake mushroom threads.

Cask & Larder spread

We had a round a victory drinks to mark another successful conquest, one of which happened to be the best gin and tonic in town. It’s always sad saying goodbye, but then again we’ve already begun plans for the next adventure, so that softened the blow. We all miss Todd, and while we’re glad he’s living his dream with his dreamgirl, it doesn’t diminish the fact that a big part of what made the Tampa food scene so lively, isn’t in Tampa anymore.  We miss him so much, we miss his scent. When this all gets sorted out, I think we should all get an apartment together. Til’ next time, old friend.

2014 Epcot Food & Wine Late Nights LIVE!

You know fall is in full swing when a dozen of the world’s finest culinary cultures gather around the World Showcase Lagoon to show off their regional specialties. This year, Logan and I were asked to give their new Late Nights Live event a test drive on the very first night it was open to the public. Think Food & Wine Festival mini. Here’s the rundown, the party starts at 9:45 pm, after the exhausted families have exited the park. Eighty bucks will get you a lanyard with a card good for five food items and one adult beverage, complete with light up disco cup. You’ve got six booths to choose your chow, while a live DJ serenades you with his best Skrillex impression. Best case scenario. in theory, you can drop your bean all while eating beans at the same time you can trip on some topiary.

 Disney Food & Wine Festival Late Nights

We scouted our choices before making any hasty decisions. The choices were as follows: Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Greece, Canada, Ireland and the Dessert & Champagne booth. We were hoping that they’d rotate through the countries each week, but upon investigating, it seems that these booths will be repeated.

We hit Hawaii first and snapped up both choices, tuna poke with seaweed salad and lotus root, and kahlua sliders with sweet and sour pineapple chutney and spicy mayo. The slider was a slam dunk. I was worried the chutney would be overly sweet, but it brought just enough sugar to accentuate the pork. The kicker for me was the spicy mayo which had an addictive ginger tinge. The tuna poke was fresh but overly subtle if that even makes sense. The seaweed salad helped bring some much-needed umami.

Tuna poke & Kahlua sliders

Ireland is at the far side of the Late Nights Live event area, so we made the trek with the intent to eat our way back to the entrance. Lobster and seafood fisherman’s pie was, for me, a bit suspect. Seafood being served en masse in Disney doesn’t instill the greatest confidence. However I quickly reversed that opinion as soon as I tasted it. Smooth and creamy mashed potatoes hid tasty chunks of lobster and fish and the buttery crust made it pure comfort food. Not to be outdone was the chocolate lava cake (I’m not sure why it’s Irish but I didn’t complain). They’re about the size of a golf ball, but that’s all you’ll need because these little guys are rich. The pitch black Bailey’s ganache oozes out as soon as the fork touches down. Thankfully, the chefs kept the sweetness in check with just a simple glaze to finish it off.

Ireland - Lobster fisherman's pie, chocolate lava cake

The only real line started as soon as the party began. As it does every day at the festival, Canada is the belle of the ball with its truffled filet offering. If we were to compare food to the 1992 World Series Champion Toronto Blue Jays (which happens like every single day), the steak would have to be Joe Carter. With its down to earth attitude and its constant perseverance, the filet, alongside its mushroom compliment keeps hitting frozen ropes through the gap year after year. The rainbow trout, (Canada’s second offering) well, it’s Pat Borders. An unlikely hero who rose from obscurity and public apathy.  The chefs at Disney decided against removing the skin. This was a bold move in my mind. I try to take my personal preference out of the equation when evaluating festival food. Remember this is for a mass audience. I feared the appeal of a skin on fish combo would be lost on the majority. Never have I been more incorrect. It added great flavor and complimented the crisp bacon that cascaded over the top of the filet, like tasty little unstable boulders.

Canada - Filet w: wild mushroom and truffle butter, smoked trout, frisée, bacon

Making our way towards the entrance and the Grecian booth, we picked up our souvenir cups with the special cocktail which both of us were indifferent on. Not because it was bad. We just don’t drink much. The cups were seizure inducing, like a DeadMau5 appearance, yet very cool, unlike a DeadMau5 appearance. As I type, my 6-year-old has already confiscated them for his private use. While in Greece, we ordered the chicken gyro as well as a boat of molten cheese topped with honey and roasted pistachio. I remember when the Greece booth opened a year or so ago, it had always been bypassed since the offerings appeared a bit plain jane to me. As Central Floridians, we have a cavalcade of Grecian delights within a short drive, which didn’t help motivate me to try it. The flavors on the gyro were very well done, with notes of lemon, garlic, and oregano all blanketed underneath a creamy tzatziki . If you’ve never had chicken souvlaki, this is a good representation. The melted cheese, made to resemble flaming saganaki was a study in simplicity, having only three known ingredients. That of the honey, pistachio and the cheese itself. It sure ain’t the prettiest filly in the stable. Nevertheless, on taste alone it was surely “affirmed.” Although I’ll admit to the fact that I’ll be stealing that flavor combo for personal use, I still hope in the future that this particular booth changes up their choices for a more adventurous Mediterranean take.

 Greece - Chicken gyro & Saganaki

Finally dessert was served. I have to say when we received our sampler plate of a tiramisu inspired opera gateau, blueberry lemon cheesecake Swiss roll, and passion fruit and lime gelée layered custard thing, I was baffled. This all was really great tasting stuff and wonderfully executed. We both had our preferences for the flavor combinations included in these mini offerings. I am a serious cheesecake and passion fruit guy, while James shares my passion for passion fruit and has a historic love affair with chocolate. Not only was this the most complex and complete dish, but at a $4.00 price point, it was also a comparative steal. We would like to thank the folks at Walt Disney World public relations for allowing us to be their guests. Think about the amount of food that comes out of each baby kitchen. No one had any complaints, or sent food back as far I could see and everyone was walking around dancing to the beat. We are adults acting like adolescents. Why? Because it’s a freaking great time.

Epcot Food & Wine dessert trio

Painter’s Palate – Sarasota, FL

The following is an excerpt from a conversation I had with a newly acquainted food friend.

JP: Hey do you want to go to lunch?

JT: Sure, where are we going?

JP: This place called Painter’s Palate.

JT: What kind of a name is that? What kind of food do they serve?

JP: Thai-Italian fusion…

JT:…oh dear god.

Admittedly, fusion cuisine doesn’t have a great reputation here Eat a Duck HQ, so I kept my hopes in check as I made my way to the newborn restaurant from the folks behind Sarasota’s Thai outpost, Drunken Poet. I was the first to arrive, so I had a moment to study the menu, hoping to glean some information on the upcoming meal. I was happy to see that most of the menu was rooted firmly in Southeast Asia with a few exceptions, like the pizza and tartine sections. Thai pizza sounds enticing…but with marinara sauce? Brie and curry tartine? Suffice it to say I was concerned about Painter’s Palate. Thai-Italian fusion, a name that gives no clue about what kind of food you might find, an empty dining room, things were looking grim.

My concern didn’t have time to change to worry before my compatriots arrived. Since we were the only diners, we asked to see the dinner menu as the lunch version was missing a couple of items we had heard good things about. The first glimmer of hope came as we read through the appetizer section…and then proceeded to order every item, along with a spicy basil pizza for good measure.

Any worries I had were immediately assuaged when an order of duck rolls arrived. An intriguing tartar-like sauce bound the crispy, golden rolls to the plate. I was knocked out by the succulent duck meat, juicy and full of spices. The Thaicos followed and were another early hit. Healthy slabs of lightly seared ahi tuna topped with fresh seaweed salad laid in a crisp shrimp chip were delicious. In my opinion it could have done without the imitation crab underneath, but it didn’t take away from the dish.

Painter's Palate apps 1

The crispy wings were a small misstep as they seemed to have been left in the fryer a touch too long and the accompanying jar seemed to contain straight duck sauce. I can’t blame the chef too much since we did bombard him with a large order, at the same time as I said, we were the only ones there. At the time, Painter’s Palate had been open less than a week, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The appetizers continued to arrive at machine gun pace. Crispy shrimp in a creamy sriracha sauce were a unanimous winner. Perfectly cooked with tender meat and a nice crisp fried shell. I found this sauce to be much tastier than the one that came with the wings.

Painter's Palate apps 2

Simple inari pockets stuffed with more seaweed salad were a welcome, and very tasty reprieve from the fried assault…which was continued by two fantastic Thai “corn dogs”. The now familiar creamy sauce was present to brighten up the panko breading and was helped along by a refreshing hit of kaffir lime in the dog itself.

We heard the chef hails from Belgium, so it was only right to sample his frites. They cut them thick at Painter’s Palate, leaving a soft interior , a good fry and were paired, as is the custom, with a clearly homemade mayo. It was a touch salty, but a strong citrus note helped offset.

The aforementioned red curry and brie tartine arrived to three pairs of raised eyebrows. Unfortunately this dish fell flat due to the clunky ingredient combinations. Three pieces of toasted bread topped with melted brie and bacon weren’t bad in and of themselves. However they sat on a warm bed of spinach, peppers, tomatoes and walnuts all in a red curry sauce which was noticeably missing any curry flavor.

Tartine, frites, spicy basil pizza

The spicy basil pizza arrived to settle our debate about marinara sauce at a Thai joint. This did not suck. Far from it in fact. It was a beautiful pie, with a crisp crust, not underdone despite the copious amounts of ground beef and sweet caramelized onions riding on the dough. A fried egg was a nice touch but didn’t add much to the flavor. I actually think the pizzas could take to Thai flavors quite well. Get rid of the cheese and marinara sauce and throw in some spicy red curry, shrimp paste pizza and pickled lemongrass. I’m no chef but I can see the possibilities! I’d like to see the chef get creative here, they’ve got that pizza oven, so why not stray from Italy in lieu of Thailand?

In restaurant terms, Painter’s Palate is still in its infancy, only a couple of weeks old, but they’re already off to a great start with some truly impressive dishes. If they can tighten up some small mistakes, rework that tartine section and really commit to exploring what’s possible when Giuseppe and Pravat put their heads together, they could have a real hit on their hands. This place deserves to be packed, so beat the hipsters and get to Painter’s Palate before it gets too cool!

da Campo Osteria – Ft. Lauderdale, FL

The first time I met chef Steven Acosta, we were in the bowels of a glorified furniture store. Naturally this is where most people go to see chefs demonstrating the process of mozzarella making. Strange setting aside, I was captivated by the pearly white cheese, stretching ever so gently between Steven’s hands. Looking around, I got the feeling that most of the people in the room didn’t really appreciate what they were seeing, an observation that would explain a lot…but I’ll get to that.

After the demo, I introduced myself to Steven and told him how much I enjoyed the delicious morsels. We chatted a bit about food. I mentioned my recent visit to Scarpetta, a restaurant that Steven says he uses as a measuring stick, a lofty aspiration to be sure, but I could tell he wasn’t kidding. I ended up leaving with a card and an invitation to drop by and sample da Campo’s full repertoire. Fast forward a couple of months, and I finally had the perfect opportunity to visit. My newly minted food friend Todd Sturtz was back in town, so I gave Steven a call, and we made our way to da Campo Osteria.

da Campo Osteria logo

I had never heard of da Campo before this, it used to be one of the many eateries by star chef, Todd English before Steven took the helm. As usual I had studied the menu beforehand and was excited by the offerings. We took our seats and our host arrived table-side to welcome us. We were given a choice, pick our meal a la carte, or leave ourselves in his capable hands. Only a fool would choose the former. With the game plan in hand, he disappeared into the kitchen to get us started.

First to arrive was the bread and sauce. A simple balsamic/olive oil, a sweet tomato marmalade and garlic spread. Naturally my favorite combo, and the first to disappear, was the focaccia with a slathering of the garlic sauce. For me, tomato option was a little sweet to be served so early in the meal when your taste buds are gearing up for savory.

Bread n' Spread

A small plate with a lone bacon-wrapped date with a shmear of aioli arrived to our delight. The bacon was gently glazed and wonderfully smokey, the sweet date and salty pork was a natural match and was a table-wide winner.

 da Campo Osteria wrapped date & chef Steven Acosta

Shortly afterwards, things got serious. Chef rolled out a table, and I knew what was coming. It was mozz time, and I was ready. Before Chef Acosta began, he asked if we knew what burrata was. We all immediately answered in the affirmative, slightly taken aback that he needed to ask. I later found out that many of the diners in the Ft. Lauderdale area are not the most adventurous eaters. Let me just say to anyone reading, if you like mozzarella, you’re gonna like burrata, trust me on this.

With our love for cream filled mozz expressed, Steven got to work, and I got a front row seat. He starts with fresh curds and adds hot salted water, slightly below the boiling point, to get the curds to melt. After much stirring, stretching, filling and tucking, a bright white orb was presented atop a mountain of local heirloom tomatoes and house made croutons.

Fresh burrata & heirloom tomatoes

In my lifetime, I’ve probably consumed over 100 lbs of burrata and mozzarella. If I were to rank them all, this would break the top five no problem. The exterior is firmer than the mozzarella you can buy in water and it’s also served just above room temperature. This caprese, panzanella salad whatever you want to call it, had some of the boldest flavors. The best part of the dish? The ridiculous slurry that formed at the bottom of the bowl from the cream, balsamic, tomato caviar and garlic infused oil from the croutons, so addictive I’m almost getting withdrawal.

We were obviously smack dab in the “delicious giant sphere” part of the meal, because two softball sized “jumbo” meatballs arrived. Chef assured us that these meatballs were practically newborns, they’re rolling up the fresh ground mixture of veal, beef and pork, and browning them one at a time. I hate those dense, flavorless, overcooked meatballs you get at many a mediocre Italian joint. These were on the other end of the scale, moist, tender, and packed with flavor, something you’d imagine that ideal Italian grandmother would make. The zippy tomato sauce offset the heft of the meat, with copious amounts of parm and basil to finish out the rustic theme. In my bachelor days, I would’ve ordered two of these to go and made a night of it.

da Campo's jumbo meatball

Things slowed down a touch with a couple of small plates. Crispy eggplant with apricot-chili agrodolce and veal cheeks braised in a barolo reduction with purple cauliflower and an artichoke chip. Normally I like my eggplant sliced thin and pan-fried in olive oil ’til crispy. This was a new preparation for me, cut into cubes and deep-fried. The eggplant retained its moisture beneath the seasoned crust, which saved the veg from the blandness that often results from too thick a cut. As for the cheeks, so tender they hardly required silverware, the natural flavor of the veal was the star, accented by the subtle barolo reduction. A bite of artichoke chip (which Steven needs to put in bags and sell they’re so good) added some salt that highlighted the veal even more.

Crispy eggplant & braised veal cheeks

At this point in our Italian feast, we were all ready for a pasta dish. Chef did not disappoint with three, hockey puck sized short rib ravioli topped with his signature tomato sauce. This was another favorite dish of the table, although anything with short ribs is bound to excite. The photo speaks for itself, this was Italian comfort food at its best.

Braise short rib ravioli

The last of the savory dishes was something of an experiment for the boys on the line. It was da Campo’s take on a “surf n’ turf”, with crispy pork belly and seared ahi tuna. It was served with roasted fingerling potatoes and brussels sprouts. Let me just say, the concept of this dish is fantastic, pair two moan inducing proteins on one dish and let the food do the talking. That being said, I think it still needs some tweaks. While the flavor of the pork belly was great, it was a little tough, and the skin was more chewy than crispy, not the usual wobbly, unctuous piece of fat I look for.

** UPDATE ** I had a chance to visit da Campo and Chef Steven again recently. I’m excited to report that the “surf n’ turf” has indeed been tinkered with, if not reworked completely. Steven killed it with this iteration, scrapping the seared ahi in favor of sweet jumbo scallops. The textures work perfectly now, the pork belly was cooked just right this time, achieving the fatty jiggle that was missing before, and the plump scallops are the perfect partner. The fingerling potatoes and sprouts have also been tossed, with chanterelle mushrooms, a few schmears of black garlic mascarpone and light dabs of tomato agrodolce in their place. I managed to pull the chef off the line for a moment to make sure he never changes this dish! Get to da Campo NOW and try this, though I doubt it’ll be leaving the menu anytime soon.

"Surf n' Turf" Pork belly & Tuna

The second suggestion might just be my opinion, but I’ve never been a fan of searing a wonderful piece of tuna, give it to me raw with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and I’m good. I think there’s a lot of potential here with a little reworking.

For the finale, we were given a choice for dessert, but my ears turned off after I heard tiramisu soufflé, which just begs to be combined into tiramisoufflé. It arrived all puffed up with eggy braggadocio with a crown of powdered sugar and accompaniments of mocha ice cream and mascarpone. A quick poke with a spoon paved the way for the ice cream and mascarpone to mingle at the molten core. We were all beyond full at this point but as is always the case, the dessert stomach allowed multiple mouthfuls of the sweet soufflé. The bottom layer of lady fingers and a smattering of chocolate chips pushed this dish over the edge. A word of warning, don’t attack this bad boy without friends, this is serious business.

Tirami-soufflé

We had a chance to chat with Chef Acosta after the sumptuous siege came had ended. He is truly passionate about his food, with the creativity and drive to deliver some top-notch cuisine. When he rattled off a few of the more adventurous dishes he’s come up with, we all perked up, only to find out that he hesitates to put them on the menu since earlier experiments didn’t sell. Unfortunately, as I feared at the mozzarella demo, the demographic of Ft. Lauderdale just doesn’t seem to be receptive to the new and exciting. The menu at da Campo already sports dishes like squid ink tortellini stuffed with king crab, or suckling pig confit with chanterelle mushrooms and sheep’s milk ricotta, that will impress if you’re willing to give them a shot. To all locals out there, I implore you, widen your horizons beyond mozzarella and ravioli, try something you’ve never heard of, give the guys free rein to flex their culinary muscles and I guarantee you’ll roll home with a silly grin.

As for the comparison to Scarpetta, I’ll say this, I had two completely different experiences at each restaurant. At Scarpetta, while the food was absolutely amazing, I got the feeling that there was a little laurel leaning going, and rightly so. They’ve figured out their recipes and they can crank them out night after night, but somehow the soul of the restaurant gets lost.

At da Campo, you can feel the creative energy, the attitude, resulting in food that is rustic, bold, and top shelf delicious. The menu is a constant work in progress, with unbelievable items that I hope never leave, and others that are diamonds in the rough waiting to be refined. So to the crew at da Campo, I beg you to hold on to that hunger to create, don’t let the timid eaters discourage you, because there are other true food lovers like me looking for places that can surprise and delight our jaded palates, and da Campo Osteria is that place.

The Mercer Kitchen – New York City, NY

Ah, the rare office lunch. It isn’t often that the boss is in the mood to treat all of his employees to a meal. Fortunately, yesterday mine was in one of those moods, and fortunately The Mercer Kitchen is just 2 blocks from our office at 99 Prince Street.

This cozy little joint, nestled underground beneath the Mercer Hotel, is one of the many establishments of the world renowned, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. While the food was very tasty and the atmosphere sexy, I got the feeling that this may have been more of an afterthought for the great chef. Let’s start with the food, we had a 9 top so we started with a few flatbreads:

Raw tuna and wasabi creme with pickled daikon, carrot and ginger

Black truffle and crispy fontina

Last but not least, a traditional Margherita with fresh bufala mozzarella, basil, garlic and tomato sauce, which was gone so fast I couldn’t get a shot! All three were delicious, the Margherita was an excellent example, all the ingredients were super fresh, the tomato sauce was bright with a tangy zip. The truffle, surprisingly, was the letdown of the three. It didn’t have that strong, earthy, truffle aroma that any good truffle dish should have. It tasted like they just drizzled a little truffle infused olive oil…that’s a no-no in my book. I’d gladly pay extra to see a few slivers of shaved truffle on my flatbread. The tuna wasabi flatbread was the winner for me, fresh sashimi grade tuna, a little kick from the wasabi creme and an awesome tartness from the pickled veg, too bad I had to share! I ordered my own app as well, fresh salmon over crispy sushi rice with a chipotle mayo and ponzu, topped with a little watercress and mint.

This was pretty awesome, the fish was fresh, the sauces worked well together despite the cultural divide and the rice, which reminded me more of a nice moist risotto ball, had a warm succulence that tied it all together. For an entrée, I sprang for The Mercer Burger, with pepperjack cheese, avocado, crunchy red onion, Russian dressing with a side of frites.

It was wonderfully juicy and perfectly cooked medium rare. The Russian dressing added a nice tang, with the onions there for fantastic flavor and texture. Paired with a nice buttery toasted bun, it was a fine specimen of a burger. Of course, dessert followed, I chose the warm roasted apples in puff pastry with a caramel glaze, dried cherries and french toast ice cream, yum.

The meal was very tasty and everyone seemed to enjoy it, but I just felt like it lacked in creativity overall. The salmon app and tuna flatbread were bright spots in a somewhat uninspired menu. The flavors were all there, spot on, everything tasted great, but come on Jean, I know you can do better than this, don’t just give me a good burger, wow me! Knock my socks off, give me something I’d never expect, because what I DO expect out of you, Mr. Vongerichten, is to blow me away with your culinary artistry. While The Mercer Kitchen was a nice meal, and I would recommend it if you want to go have a nice lunch in SoHo, I feel like it should be running at a higher level than it is. Don’t get lazy Jean, I’ve got my eye on you.

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