By Rochelle Koff
"Pazzo cucina" means crazy kitchen in Italian, and some might wonder if Rocky Aiyash is a bit crazy to bring a branch of Pazzo's Cucina Italiana to Fort Lauderdale, where there's an Italian restaurant in nearly every strip mall.
But Aiyash is no stranger to competition. He runs two Pazzo's in Chicago, and with a home in Fort Lauderdale, he knows the local dining scene. Aiyash saw a market for an upscale restaurant and late-night lounge on 17th Street Causeway.
He took the plunge in October, renovating the former Tara Steak & Lobster House space. His son and co-owner, Matthew, 24, is a DVD DJ who plans to run late-night parties. So far, the place has attracted more diners than partyers, but general manager Victoria Pfender says Pazzo's is planning events to pump up the lounge after 10 p.m.
Two huge saltwater fish tanks divide the handsome bar area and the main dining room, a soothing space with dark carpeting, white tablecloths and candlelight. Pictures of the Italian countryside decorate ivory-hued walls, and Dean Martin and other classic crooners sing softly in the background.
Servers are professional and friendly, at your side when they should be. Given the atmosphere and all the attention, we expected a stiff tab, but most dishes at Pazzo's are under $25, and the more than adequate wine list is well-priced.
The menu offers pizza, pasta, several salads and a dozen entree choices, with sauces, soups, pizza dough and most noodles made in house. To start, we get not only a bread basket with extra-virgin olive oil for dipping but individual plates of mild Castelveltrano green olives and chunks of Parmigiano -- a nice touch.
Appetizers exceed expectations, too. Homey polenta is baked in a cylindrical mold, hollowed out and filled with creamy basil pesto and chunks of roasted eggplant. Broccoli, asparagus, sun-dried and fresh tomatoes and julienne carrots and onions in a wonderfully aromatic sauce fill out the plate.
A tasty starter of torre di melanzane brings a stack of breaded, lightly fried eggplant slices, roasted tomatoes and mozzarella drizzled with a balsamic reduction and topped off with baby arugula and shredded Parmigiano.
Fried calamari is pretty basic, but Pazzo's gets points for its light breading. Our Gorgonzola flatbread, round like a personal pizza, was ho-hum but we liked the crust, which bodes well for the brick-oven pizzas.
A friend who traveled in Italy last summer said her pennette alla vodka reminded her of a dish she enjoyed in Venice. The al dente pasta gets smokiness from slivers of prosciutto. It's dotted with tiny peas and smothered in a rich sauce with a garnish of fresh basil.
A weeknight special brought a flavorful timbale of porcini and saffron risotto with large sea scallops and king prawns -- a success except for the prawns, which were a bit overcooked.
On a Saturday night there were several specials, including an excellent sea bass. The generous, eight-ounce portion is pan-seared with poached baby artichokes, cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives and capers, then popped in the oven. It's served in a delicate, sea-scented sauce.
Pork chops are nicely burnished on the grill, but we especially like the sides: an earthy ragout of mushrooms, onions, white beans and tomatoes and slices of spicy oven-roasted Italian sausage.
Some desserts, including a so-so pear tart, come from an outside bakery. Better to go with house-made choices like a classic tiramisu, mini cannolis or delicious chocolate soufflé.
Is Aiyash crazy for opening this Pazzo's? As my relatives would say, crazy like a fox.
Pazzo's Cucina Italiana.
Address: 1430 SE 17th St., Fort Lauderdale.
Rating: *** (Very Good).
Hours: noon-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Sunday. Lounge open one hour later.
Prices: Appetizers $9-$14, soups and salads $4-$14, pizza $12-$13, pasta $13-$18, entrees $19-$32, desserts $6-$8.
FYI: Full bar. Late-night parties the third Saturday of the month starting Jan. 26. AX, DN, DS, MC, VS.
Pazzo's executive chef Jason Ingrassia with co-owner Matt Aiyash and general manager Victoria Pfender. Photo: Jared Lazarus/Miami.com