Our arses had hardly alighted upon the seat cushions when a tuxedoed gentleman came by the table with an enormous quarter-wheel of Parmesan cheese and plunked a carved nugget of it on each of our side plates — pausing long enough only to tersely introduce it the way a classical composer might name the next number: Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Seconds later a slew of tuxedoed servers descended on us like some gastronomic SWAT team, disappearing just as quickly but leaving behind thin, spicy slices of cold fried zucchini; mounds of diced ripe tomatoes laced with olive oil and basil (a crouton below the heap hardly validated the description of "bruschetta"); a basket of Italian bread and focaccia crisps plied with cayenne; glasses of water; and flutes of sparkling pink champagne, with a swelled raspberry at the bottom of each.
Pescecane owners Tito and Miriam Dallavalle are clearly old-school restaurateurs, their priorities not pegged on pretentious décor, cutting-edge cuisine, or cute cocktails, but a Ziegfeld-like obsession to make their patrons' night out a spectacular one. Dining sequences here are orchestrated by show-biz dictums, such as Start out with a big number (the aforementioned antipasti and wine), and Leave 'em laughing (glasses of vin santo are ladled from a jar at meal's end). The middle acts include customers being doted upon, outlandish-size portions, and generous pours of wine. The fact that the 62 seats are consistently filled indicates Mr. Dallavalle has a hit on his hands.
Tito isn't new to this stage, having spent years managing the upper-crust Il Mulino in both New York and Sunny Isles — fine learning halls for studying formal Italian restaurateuring. Pescecane's elegantly rustic décor, well foliated with plants, sets the proper thematic mood. Ornately framed paintings adorn olive green walls, hanging light fixtures and sconces are demurely dimmed, candles flicker atop tables dressed in pressed white linens — and situated as closely to each other as theater seats.
The service is leisurely, which on the first visit meant about 35 minutes from seating to receiving menus — one printed, the other verbal. Both bills of fare are similarly categorized into antipasti, salads, pastas, poultry, and meats. The written one contains about 30 selections; the list our waiter recited seemed almost as lengthy. If you're someone who has trouble recalling spoken specialties when only five or six are in play, you might have trouble here.
After grasping the details of two nightly pastas the second time around, I requested both as starters for the table — along with "shrimp scampi" from the regular menu. The trio of breaded, garlic-laden jumbo crustaceans was butterflied and buoyed by a lusciously rich lobster sauce.
Homemade pastas proved equally toothsome. Minced porcini mushrooms permeated firm squares of ravioli and also boosted a champagne sauce that was sweetened with reduced cream and dotted with specks of black truffles. Wide, chewy ribbons of pappardelle noodles were padded with porcinis as well, along with zucchini and nuggets of pork sausage in basil-flecked tomato sauce.
Menu pastas range from classic Italian to classic Italian: rigatoni Bolognese, spaghetti puttanesca, fettuccine Alfredo. The price for most is $16.75 — more than fair, especially in light of serving size, and more so still when the complimentary antipasti are taken into account. The same consideration applies to entrées: Veal scaloppini variations are $23.75, shrimp preparations $28.75, chicken dishes $19.75.
"They get you with the specials!" as my uncle Al is fond of saying. In this case, he'd be right. The two pastas du jour we ordered were $34 and $26. Colorado rack of lamb was $45, wild salmon $28, and pompano $33. Whole salt-crusted branzino cost $37, and was worth every penny. Also known as striped sea bass, the filleted, deboned fish elicited sweetly pristine flakes of white flesh, accented with a splash of olive oil and squeeze of lemon — just like they do it in Venice.
We didn't really require any more food on the table, but "potatoes roasted with garlic and sage," one of three à la carte sides, sounded too good to pass up. Thick sticks of fried potatoes, piled log cabin-style, came topped with a fried smattering of the other two ingredients. "French fries," I said. "Good French fries," one of my guests chimed in.
Meat selections are decidedly heavier. In the case of veal saltimbocca, too much so. A trio of slender breaded fillets was layered with sautéed spinach and crisps of salty prosciutto, the whole bathed in salty, gravylike dark brown sauce. Fortunately the waiters were quick to refill water glasses. They were also on-the-ready with wine pours. Glasses are $10 and, as mentioned, munificently filled; bottles, from Italy and America, are marked up just as liberally.
I think it a crime to burden a beautiful veal chop with breading, marinara sauce, and melted cheese, but the parmigiana-style hunk of meat will thrill those who like their meals overstaged. Grandly sized, grandly priced ($32 to $39) double-cut veal chop, sirloin steak, and beef tenderloin are pretty much solo acts, served with only minimal accompaniments.
Pollo francesca was executed with a light touch, but the two meaty breasts combined for a weighty amount of poultry. The Frenched chicken (meaning wing bones attached), dipped in egg batter and greaselessly pan-fried, arrived steaming-hot and succulent, surrounded by a thin, puckery lemon sauce.
Flourless chocolate cake was the same old same old, distinguishable from others only in its tri-partitioning and partnering pool of marsala-tinged sabayon sauce. Tiramisu, too, was more textbook than terrific. But after shots of vin santo dessert wine, and warm farewells from the staff, we exited the theater — um, restaurant — vowing to return for another extravaganza.
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