Heart of Palm
The Palm premiered in Bay Harbor Islands in 1986, but it has the Joe's Stone Crab, old-timey feel of an institution that's been around forever. The original Palm in New York does go back pretty far -- to 1926, which is when John Ganzi and Pio Bozzi, two immigrants to that city, officially registered their restaurant's name. They called it Parma, after their hometown in Italy, but a bureaucrat misunderstood the accents and entered it as "Palm." The young men went with it.
Palm started out as an Italian restaurant, its reputation as a steak house not really taking hold till the Thirties. A decade later Bruno Bozzi and Walter Ganzi took over the operation from their fathers and added lobster to the menu, and in 1965 third-generation owners Wally Ganzi, Jr., and Bruce Bozzi introduced the now-trademark four-pound Nova Scotia lobsters. It was at this time that Palm became established as a leading steak and seafood restaurant, the recipe for success, as noted by Wally, "consistency, a big lobster, a good steak."
That formula now serves as a blueprint for eighteen Palms, from East Hampton to Mexico City, all incorporated under one Palm Management tree run by Bozzi's son-in-law; after 74 years it's still in the family. The Bay Harbor Islands branch, like the others, has a more casual setting than what's found at most top steak house chains, which usually are defined by dark woods and opulent appointments. The signature decorative statement here are caricatures covering the cream-color walls, perhaps the most familiar being that of the cartoon character Dondi (by the original artist). The Palm gets its share of tourists and conventioneers, but on any given night the core of diners are regulars returning for the familiar fare, unpretentious ambiance, and first-rate service; the wait staff is composed of long-time veterans who perform their tasks near perfectly. So does general manager and maitre d' Ray Jacomo, who's been with the company for more than 30 years, welcoming even first-timers as if they were VIP members of some private club. And it is a club of sorts -- for people who enjoy big food.
Big but not surprising. Numerous menu items have remained unchanged since the Roaring Twenties, and the resurgent popularity of steak houses has made the big steak/giant lobster/creamed spinach/lyonnaise potato/hefty cheesecake formula quite predictable. Fact is when you lay down $29 for a bone-in rib eye, $30 for a New York strip, or $39 for a porterhouse at Palm, or, for that matter, at any upscale chop house, you're served good fat, juicy, flavorful, prime aged meat of Brobdingnagian dimensions for your money; these places steak their reputations on that. Distinctions are more easily found outside the formulaic steaks and lobsters. Palm's Italian fare, for instance, like a starter of clams oreganata ($9.75), or their veal and pasta entrées, are far better than you'd expect if you didn't read the first sentence of the second paragraph. And their creamed spinach ($7.25) is superior, with just the right amount of cream and nutmeg -- not, as is so often the case, overwhelmed by garlic. Hash browns ($6.25) and lyonnaise ($8) also satisfy, but cottage fries ($6.25), really just glorified potato chips, don't qualify in my book as an acceptable accompaniment for anything more refined than airline food -- you might as well feed me Cheez Doodles with my lobster.
I have no such qualms about Palm's excellent "Monday night" and "Gigi" salads, both of which provide light counterpoint to the carnivorous fare. The Monday ($8.75) is made up of succulent pieces of jumbo shrimp with diced tomatoes, green beans, onion, and bacon tossed in oil and vinegar; the Gigi ($11.50) is a more finely diced mix of three types of lettuce, tomatoes, onion, pimientos, and anchovies. Don't be intimidated by the price of sides and salads: They're meant to be shared.
Cheesecake is flown in from New York, but unfortunately they go to all that trouble and then order from the wrong place -- meaning an Italian bakery, which traditionally produces one that's less creamy than the Jewish versions found at Lindy's or Junior's. Then again that's just my personal cheesecake prejudice, one that will have no effect on the Palm; their cheesecake has always been like this, and likely always will be. The same also is true for those big lobsters and good steaks, though, and that's just fine by me.
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