Pizza and Italian food never go out of style with our family. Today, the neighborhood pizzeria has gotten a makeover with more atmosphere and gourmet toppings, making pizza not just a favorite of kids. Here are three of the new generation of pizza places in Broward.
When Valentino’s Cucina Italiana expanded to a larger Fort Lauderdale space, owner Giovanni Rocchio turned the old space into casual pizzeria Osteria Acqua & Farina. “Most of the pizzerias around here are more New York style,” said Chris Rocchio, who runs the casual eatery for his brother. “We’re trying to be a little different and more like what you would find in Italy.” The restaurant was tiny when it was Valentino’s and that hasn’t changed. It was packed on a recent Friday night and tables are close enough that you can easily ogle your neighbors’ food or overhear their conversation. The setting and menu remind me of small street cafes in Italy. The 12-inch thin crust pizza is the signature item here. The menu is simple classic Italian cuisine, but the choices are an edited selection and a step above your basic red sauce joint. Choices are divided into red and white pizza with authentic toppings like speck, mortadella, broccoli rabe, truffle oil and more. Plus you’ll find a couple of calzones, foccacia and about a half-dozen choices each of entrees and pastas. Mixed with more traditional items like lasagna and chicken scarpariello are creative dishes like Chicken Valentino, featuring spinach, white raisins, pine nuts, goat cheese and mushrooms. Avoid entrees if you want to keep the tab down. Our large party opted for dishes that had the most universal appeal since sharing was the plan. Pizzas of eggplant parmigiana and a rustica with roasted red peppers, spicy salami, sausage and red onions were winners. A plate of linguini with white clam sauce was loaded with steamed clams in the shell, but the sauce could have benefited from more garlic. Garganelli pasta with a homemade sausage ragu was a hearty flavorful dish perfect for a cool night or a day when comfort food is in order. Next time we’ll save room for a Nutella calzone. We can’t wait to return; it’s a lot cheaper than a trip to Italy.
Houston-based Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen opened in Pembroke Pines earlier this year as it embarks on a South Florida expansion. If this first franchise-owned restaurant is any indication, we think there’s a market for Russo’s here. The spacious restaurant has a warm feel with wood floors, black crystal chandeliers and lots of cozy booths. While there’s a lot of competition in the coal-fired pizza segment, what makes Russo’s different is the depth and breadth of the menu. There are 15 New York style specialty pizzas, plus another eight Napoletana style specialty pizzas, four flatbread bruschettas and the ability to create-your-own New York style pizza. This isn’t the blackened-style coal-fired pizza, but a much lighter baked version more akin to a brick-oven preparation. If you’re not in the mood for pizza, there’s a plethora of pastas, sandwiches, salads and entrees. Portions are large and perfect for sharing. Prices are quite reasonable, with most items under $15. The restaurant also offers a gluten-free pizza option and a multi-grain pasta. Menu selections are a mix of traditional Northern and Southern Italian favorites, including recipes passed down from Chef Anthony’s grandparents. The chicken rustica pizza impressed us with the amount of toppings and the quality — a medium pizza was loaded with fresh spinach, roma tomatoes, chicken, basil, feta and mozzarella cheeses and an olive oil and garlic sauce offered just enough flavor without overwhelming them. Chicken al pesto pasta was another success, a hearty bowl with a decadent sauce plus sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, grilled chicken and romano cheese. But it’s definitely too rich and large for one. Nonna’s eggplant included two halves of an eggplant stuffed with Italian sausage, mushrooms and romano cheese baked in the coal-fired oven and served with a size of pasta. While we liked this dish, it didn’t wow us because it was salty and could have used a little more cheese on the top and more time in the oven. We hope Russo’s finds its way to our neighborhood.
In the strip shopping center next to IKEA, Giovanni’s Coal Fire Pizza is a step above your average neighborhood place. Its high ceilings, brick accents on the walls and an open kitchen are inviting. The multiple flat screen TVs, large bar area and two-for-one beer and wine specials all day make this a good spot for watching a game. The focus on promotions and specials aims to attract a neighborhood and family-oriented crowd. You’ll find nightly deals such as $19.95 lasagna for two every Saturday, plus a wide selection of lunch specials for $5.99 to $8.95. There’s a mix of salads, roasted chicken wings, pizzas and traditional Italian homestyle favorites like shrimp scampi, chicken marsala and cheese ravioli. The menu includes a reminder that coal-fired pizza doesn’t include burnt edges. Based on what we sampled, we would rule Giovanni’s a mixed bag, with pizzas the star. Momma’s homemade meatballs with ricotta cheese pizza was the best thing we tried and worth a return trip. Chicken ala vodka pizza lacked flavor and we couldn’t find any of the promised pancetta. Baked ziti was loaded with cheese and a large enough portion for sharing, but it wasn’t anything we couldn’t easily duplicate at home. The best part was the giant meatball, worth the extra charge. We sent back a specialty of chicken Milanese because the chicken breast was greasy. An extra charge for bread with entrees and a generic brand of fountain sodas is disappointing for a place trying to cultivate a loyal following.