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).
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.