When it comes to restaurants on Via Veneto, uh, I mean Las Olas Boulevard, I wish there was more variety. But mostly we get a river of red sauce and a parade of pasta, pizza and prosciutto, with a few giant meatballs, veal parms and grilled steaks and shrimp thrown in. Three more Italian restaurants have opened this year, bringing the total to 12 in a 10-block cluster: Piazza Italia (February), Tuscan Prime (May) and Talento (June). Venice of America, indeed.
The question for a critic and discerning diners: Do any of these newcomers bring something different to the table, or are they just safe exercises in filling seats by offering America’s most popular foreign cuisine? And if all these restaurants do is displace older, staler Italian restaurants, is that progress?
Each of the trio reminds me of something already on Las Olas. Piazza Italia (at the former site of Mangos) is a lively place that is similar to Louie Bossi, with impressive antipasto platters and a back courtyard. Tuscan Prime (in the former home of Grille 401) has elements of Timpano Italian Chophouse, but prettier and with better food. And Talento has shades of Caffe Europa, with desserts displayed in a glass case and a crowded bar scene (happy hour runs all night at Talento’s bar).
That said, each has virtues. My rundown, in order of preference. Be warned: None is cheap (hey, it’s Las Olas).
Talento (3 1/2 stars)
The newest of the bunch, Talento has quickly found its footing, with elevated, simple food that displays flavor and finesse. The decor is minimalist, stylish and modern, with white leather seats, horseshoe-shaped banquettes and an LED waterfall wall separating the bar from the dining room. Tables are well-spaced, so nobody feels cramped. The menu is big, perhaps too big, with pizzas, raw bar items, appetizers, pastas, fish, meat and a full menu for vegans (a distinctive and welcome touch). But diners will not find chicken parm, fettucine Alfredo or some of the usual heavier Italian-American offerings. Talento aims for something more refined.
The restaurant is backed by deep-pocketed business partners Maurizio Turella and Sandro Picciurro, who owned the first McDonald’s franchises in Italy (Rome) decades ago. A few years ago, Turella ate at Dal Maestro, a small Hallandale Beach restaurant near Gulfstream Park. He was impressed with the husband-and-wife team who ran it, chef Luigi Criscuolo and manager Angela Gullota.
Turella has given them a shot at the big time. If my recent meal is any indication, they’re up to the task.
Housemade pastas exhibit precision and firmness that are a joy to eat, including pappardelle with a chunky wild boar ragout ($23), or with black truffles and aged Parmigiano-Reggiano ($35). Snapper crudo ($18), served over arugula with caperberries, shimmered with freshness. A simple salad of field greens ($10) was lightly dressed with a wisp of bracing vinaigrette. Housemade desserts were subtle instead of sugary, including tiramisu ($10) and airy, creamy profiteroles ($12).
Talento bills its cuisine as “modern Italian,” and the restaurant has one ultra-2019 touch: the triple-digit entree. It is the first Italian restaurant on Las Olas to crack the $100 barrier: $120 for a Tomahawk rib eye steak that the menu boasts is “cooked to perfection.” (Lobster Bar was the first to cross the $100 plateau on Las Olas, with giant lobsters and a $120 porterhouse).
I don’t know if any steak is worth $120, but Talento’s may well be.
We ordered ours medium-rare and the kitchen grilled it with impressive precision, with a flavorful crust that was charred but not burnt and a juicy, ruby-red interior. It featured a Brontosaurus-sized bone that would make Fred Flinstone proud, served on a cutting board unsliced (which we didn’t mind; it meant the steak was properly resting to allow redistribution of juices). The platter came with roasted potatoes, grilled asparagus, mushrooms, sweet peppers, little piles of watercress and a scattering of whole peppercorns. Simple, pretty and delicious. And big enough to serve two or three.
My biggest quibble was with the wine service. After a good day at the races, I ordered a 2012 Brunello di Montalcino Castello Romitorio ($275, not quite double markup on its $140 retail price). Our server, who seemed green and nervous at meal’s start when she recited specials and went into a rote spiel about “we only use the finest of ingredients," fetched better glasses but it took prompting from me to get the bottle decanted. She splashily poured the wine directly into the bottom of the decanter, instead of tilting it and pouring the wine gently against the side to aerate it. Some better training is in order. But I’d say Talento is off to a splashy, very good start.
Tuscan Prime (3 stars)
A diner can’t help but be impressed by the grandness of Tuscan Prime, an elegant two-level restaurant that opened in May. The sleek, sophisticated dining room is dressed in modern black-and-white, with marble tables and red-leather banquettes downstairs and black tablecloths with white napkins on the second level. Tuscan Prime also has some deep-pocketed backing; Michele and Gennaro DiMeo’s Monte Restaurant Development Group own and operate 13 restaurants in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Given the history of shutterings by prior occupants (Riley McDermott’s, Bova Prime, Rare, Grille 401), I wonder if the site is simply too big to succeed.
Tuscan Prime bills itself as an “elevated Italian chophouse,” and my recent meal was straightforward and solid. The beef carpaccio platter ($18) was hefty, thin tenderloin slices topped with a generous scattering of arugula and Parmesan shavings. The BLTA salad ($15) with bacon, butter lettuce, avocado and a double-cheese combo of provolone and Gorgonzola was a little light on tomatoes and heavy on dressing. A 14-ounce New York strip ($49) was fine, cooked properly and served with a trio of sauces — classic Bearnaise, a Brunello reduction and a creamy horseradish that didn’t pair so well with the steak.
There were a few surprises. The bad: no classic veal chop was offered, something I expected (and wanted) from an Italian chophouse. Our server told us it was on the opening menu but didn’t sell and was yanked. The good: the option of seared jumbo scallops on bucatini Amatriciana (San Marzano tomatoes with pancetta and pecorino) was a pairing that worked, with the lean brininess of the sea mixing well with the fatty, salty richness of the pork and cheese. But the $40 price tag seemed a little hefty.
Service was a highlight, with our veteran pro particularly skilled in conversation and the dying art of properly pouring a good bottle of wine (Belle Glos Clark & Telephone Pinot Noir, a good value at $90) with perfect pacing throughout the meal. She continuously returned to fill glasses to the right level (not too much), which allowed us to enjoy sips from appetizer through dessert. In South Florida, where quick over-pours are the norm in order to induce the sale of an extra glass or bottle, the gentle touch was appreciated.
Piazza Italia (incomplete)
Piazza Italia opened in February, the second Italian reboot of the site that used to be Mangos. Wisely, this one isn’t called Mangos.
New owners Frank Talerico and James Tomecsek have rebranded to a multi-pronged Italian restaurant, featuring formal and casual dining areas, bar, courtyard and a market with espresso bar, provisions and gelato. They brought some of the same concepts from their successful Casa Calabria restaurant at the Ocean Manor Hotel on Galt Ocean Mile, including bread service featuring a ramekin of silky smooth marinara for dunking.
Piazza Italia is still a work in progress, which is why I haven’t given a final rating. The main Piazza dining room features white columns, a kitschy replica of the Trevi Fountain and a backlit ceiling giving the appearance of the sky (similar to the ceilings found in the shopping promenades at the Venetian casino in Las Vegas). The room is casual, cramped and a bit loud. A meal I had there six weeks ago was hit-and-miss, with an excellent antipasto platter but shrimp, veal and pasta dishes that were standard and unremarkable.
If I had to give it a star rating, it would be 2.5, fair to good. But Talerico informs me two notable things have occurred since my visit. A new executive chef, Massimiliano Lozzi, has arrived. He is from Rome and worked at the Vatican, Talerico says, and has been tweaking some things. And the smaller, formal Venetian room just opened. It offers a white-linen, fine-dining experience with a different menu produced by a separate part of the kitchen, served by staff in white tuxedo jackets. It features rotating monthly menus featuring dishes from two different cities/regions (Venice and Florence this month). The Venetian room is too new for me to try (I always wait at least a month before eating at a new establishment for review), so I will withhold final judgment until a later date.