Racks Italian Kitchen: Topnotch pizza, casual fare, and cocktails
Pizza steals the show at Racks.
A wood patio at the rear of Racks beckons diners with an enviable vista of the Intracoastal Waterway. The wharf setting likewise makes dockage a snap, and by using the restaurant's complimentary boat valet service, I was able to hop right off my yacht and step to a perfectly set table.
Or not. But sitting waterside alongside thickets of mangroves, sipping cocktails, drinking wine, and sharing bites as twilight's colors dim — moments such as this remind us why we live here rather than in Topeka. Such bliss, though, will surely darken if accompanied by food with flavors more faded than the setting sun (the type all too frequently foisted upon view-happy diners). Racks' cuisine is anything but.
The 155-seater is a suave, modern take on a neighborhood trattoria. A hostess stand up front is situated in a faux Italian market with minimal stock — more for rustic ambiance than anything else. An open kitchen along the left and a white-tiled wall of the dining room lead to a bustling bar in back, while the opposite, red-brick wall is lined with earth-toned banquettes. To the rear are glass doors that open to the aforementioned deck, which you might consider as an escape valve if the music gets too loud. Flat-screen TV sets placed throughout the room are silent yet nonetheless distracting — on one occasion, the movie Spider-Man was showing. I don't understand: Have psychological studies shown a greater appetite for Italian cuisine while images of superheroes flash above one's head?
The concise menu here is slightly more extensive than the one at owner Gary Rack's other venue, Table 42 Italian Kitchen & Wine Bar in Boca Raton (formerly Coal Mine Pizza). Both spots specialize in coal-fired pies but also offer starters, salads, and pastas; Racks adds a handful of fish, meat, and poultry entrées to the mix.
Pizza isn't the official headliner, but it surely steals the show. There are four choices each of vaguely oval-shaped red-sauced or white-cheesed pies. The most basic version gets topped with tomato sauce, fiore di latte and Reggiano cheeses, olive oil, basil, and little crackles of sea salt. The dough is baked in a 600-degree hearth, resulting in a crisp, lightly blistered crust that's slightly puffed around the edges. The same characteristics defined the base of a white pie lusty with smoked mozzarella and Reggiano cheeses embedded with spinach and delicate wisps of prosciutto.
Diners start with thin slices of focaccia bread scattered with Parmesan and herbs, along with a small scoop of fresh tomato-intense spread the texture of tomato paste. The first appetizer to arrive was a whole steamed artichoke, sliced in half vertically and finished on the grill — the halves then heaped with capers, tomatoes, roasted peppers, herbs, garlic, moistened breadcrumbs, and ricotta al forno (the cheese lightly crusted in the coal-fired oven). A mayonnaise-based dip on the side was dull but pretty much superfluous in light of the barrage of flavors already seeped into the choke.
A selection of imported charcuterie and cheeses is tendered with the intent of guests composing their own combo platter from the five choices in each category — $6 per item or $24 for five. Regardless of which you choose, you're bound to end up more satisfied than the poor soul who orders a caesar salad. The romaine lettuce was practically dry; the "dressing" tasted mostly of lemon juice and garlic, with a dusting of Parmesan cheese. Best part of the composition were two slender, marinated white anchovies hidden under the greens.
We all loved the Sunday-supper-style rigatoni in a smooth, slightly tart "gravy" made with San Marzano tomatoes and laden with a large, flavorful meatball; Italian sausage; a tender square of moistly roasted pork; a dollop of ricotta cheese; and a dose of Reggiano. (Not since DeVito opened have we witnessed a restaurant sprinkling grated cheese on so many dishes; read: too many.) Linguine with white clam sauce boasted more than a dozen sweet white-water bivalves in a broth bolstered by garlic and herbs. Though there was no Parmesan involved, there was also shockingly little pasta, especially for a $19 dish.
Salmon with eggplant caponata; branzino with tomato jam; skirt steak; chicken or veal parmigiana; and veal scaloppine are the entrée options. The last was advertised with a garnish of artichokes, capers, crimini mushrooms, and lemon, and indeed all were present on the plate — but a rich, creamy mushroom sauce flooded over the accouterments and likewise drowned the small, flimsy pieces of veal (petite portion for $25). A nightly special of whole summer snapper was much better — the herbed skin darkly crisped from an aggressive pan-sear that also sealed in the juices. A heaping helping of microgreens alongside was fantastic, flecked with cilantro leaves and dressed with lemon, olive oil, and a dash of sesame oil.
Starters run from $9 (fried portobello) to $14 (beef carpaccio), salads are $10 to $13, pizzas $13 to $17, and pastas $16 to $19 (except the $23 Sunday supper). Veal or chicken parmigiana is $19, and other main dishes go for $24 or $25 (some fish specials fetch a higher "market price"). If you're looking for a better deal, head to Racks on Wednesdays after 5 p.m. for a $5 hamburger — a big, ten-ounce beauty made from Harris Ranch organic Angus beef.
The dessert menu is five strong. We sampled three: pudding-like tiramisu, house-made biscotti, and cannoli, the last boasting a fresh chocolate-and-nut-studded whipped ricotta cream filling.
Racks' wine menu has recently been pared down to about 50 labels. The Italy-centric list generally ranges from $25 to $30 per bottle; 8.5-ounce quartinos run $5 to $14.
Waiters are more well intentioned than well trained. There were numerous lapses, such as unfilled water glasses (poor Parmesan-parched palates!), an unwiped table, plates removed before we were finished, and plates left when we were done. That said, the staff is a spirited bunch that otherwise performed decently enough for an informal place such as this one. Their concerted efforts to put diners at ease is appreciated.
The same can't be said for the boat valet guys, who kept insisting I never arrived on a yacht. Just kidding, but I seriously like Racks as a waterfront option for cocktails and casual fare.
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