Everyone know the idea behind the neighborhood Italian red sauce restaurant. Since you were old enough to twirl your own fork of marinara-drenched spaghetti they've been the ones doling out dishes from béchamel-bound lasagna and creamy bacon-flecked fettuccine Alfredo to eggplant parmigiana.
Those who've been dining in South Florida long enough surely know there are better options available. Namely, they'll tell you about Casa D'Angelo, a long-standing establishment recently named among the best restaurants in Fort Lauderdale that ranks among the area's favorite Tuscan-inspired eateries.
In 1998, chef-owner Angelo Elia opened his first Casa D'Angelo off Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. A tall, stately, and soft-spoken man, his unassuming nature belies the successful South Florida restaurateur beneath — one who near single-handedly forged a successful string of restaurants from Paradise Island in the Bahamas with his namesake restaurant.
Today, with five locations including one in Aspen and Atlantis Paradise Island, Casa D'Angelo Fort Lauderdale — the longstanding flagship establishment — remains fresh and welcoming despite its 15-year run.
More than a decade since it first introduced Broward County to modern Italian dining. It's a celebratory location for special occasions and intimate dinners, born at a time when Italian restaurants came in just two flavors: red sauce trattorias with the tired roster of red sauce selections or the fancy white tablecloth ristorante manned by tuxedo-clad servers.
"When I started, I wanted only to offer the type of food I was eating in Italy," says Elia, now in his late 60s.
These days, the Salerno-born chef has his sights set on establishing a more modern creation with his chain of Angelo Elia Pizza Bar Tapas, a casual line of Italian-American eateries now four locations strong. Small and family run — Elia's son is often spotted at the Fort Lauderdale outpost — each Angelo Elia restaurant rests its laurels on being local and inexpensive while serving authentic Italian from servers who don't have to wear tuxedos to get the point across.
These tapas-style eateries invite patrons of all ages, state of attire, and income levels can dine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a chic, modern space. It's a welcome addition for the casual crowd, offering a more relaxed dining space over Casa D'Angelo. There's even a bakery and coffee shop location that specializes in Italian pastries, coffees, and desserts.
You'll feel more at home, but the service and food is no less impressive. Servers have a fluid professionalism that can be hard to find in such casual settings elsewhere. The same goes for the restaurants in Delray Beach, Weston, and Coral Springs; consistency and dependability is Elia's lifeblood.
As with Casa D'Angelo, every dish is prepared to propel you to the streets of Italy, but here with a gentler hand and for less money.
In the Fort Lauderdale kitchen, the Angelo Elia executive chef Giovanni Spasoto uses the same simple, high-quality ingredients as Elia does at Casa D'Angelo, and cooks with the confidence born of being hand-picked by Elia himself. You can find each restaurant's dedicated chef behind the counter day or night, overseeing the cooks who work the wood-burning oven or those preparing salads and pasta a la minute.
Despite its lower price point, the restaurant isn't afraid to share a taste of what's to come, starting with a complimentary plate of rosemary and herbed-flecked foccacia bread. Fresh from the pizza oven, steam rising from its center as you rip it into bite-sized pieces. From there, dip each doughy, flaky tuft into the house hot oil the color of a ripe blood orange; it lends a touch of heat, and the smooth buttery taste of a good olive oil.
The menu opens with more than a dozen tapas can also be ordered as appetizers. Priced under $18 each, they include shareable portions of burrata and Parma prosciutto beneath a viscid fig balsamic reduction, or hearty arancini saffron rice balls doused in a meat-speckled ragout with green peas and mozzarella.
The veal meatballs, two per order, aren't your average balls of beef and veal. Instead, the tender white meat yields to the fork remarkably well, releasing a hot puff of steam with the first cut. Resting a shallow puddle of onion-sweet pomodoro sauce, they're good enough that you might not want to share them like that stray mutt from the wrong side of the tracks.
Pizze, 16 selections in all, are among the most popular dishes, baked Neapolitan-style in a wood fired oven that's as hot as a blacksmith's forge, an interior that glows molten metal red. The pies blister and bubble in that heat, done and served in less than five minutes. Of the usual takes, you'll find the eponymous Elia pie, a marriage of rich bufala mozzarella, salty prosciutto, bitter arugula, and sharp freshly-grated Reggiani cheese, is a welcome departure from the standard Margherita.
Specials are offered up daily. One day it's a half-roasted chicken, the meat succulent and juicy, served with roasted hunks of vegetable. Another it's a fresh-catch snapper fried up in a zesty piccata sauce with capers and brightened with fresh parsley.
Don't skip dessert, be it a glass of wine from Elia’s own Jankara Winery from Italy, or one the restaurant’s homemade and fresh-baked delicacies. The only thing that's not made in-house are the cannoli shells. Otherwise, it's a choice of fresh-churned gelato, moist lemon cheesecake, simple creme brulee, or a light and fluffy tiramisu to make your trip to Tuscany complete.
Angelo Elia Pizza Bar Tapas. 4215 N. Federal Highway, Oakland Park. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday. Call 954-561-7300, or visit angeloeliapizza.com.