Casa Calabria feels like home
Chef cooks up authentic recipes from native Italy
Casa Calabria welcomes guests with a simple touch of Southern Italian soul. A loaf of bread, crusty on the outside and yeasty on the inside, arrived soon after we were seated on a recent weekend. No butter. A glass container of extravirgin olive oil was on the table, ready for pouring. Our server set down two small bowls: a tapenade paste with olives and sun-dried tomato, and a smooth tomatobasil sauce.
The bread was from Gran Forno, a fine Italian bakery in Fort Lauderdale. The rest was straight from Casa Calabria owner Frank Talerico’s heart.
“I remember being around the table with my family growing up, and we all dipped bread in sauce,” Talerico says in a followup interview after my meal.
Thus, the same can be done at Casa Calabria, Talerico’s tribute to his late parents and Southern Italian roots at the Ocean Manor Beach Resort on Galt Ocean Mile. Talerico was born in Calabria, a region at the front foot/toe part of Italy’s boot, in the small mountain town of San Giovanni in Fiore. His father raised goats and made fresh ricotta. His grandmother, mother and aunt cooked big Sunday suppers of stuffed peppers, gnocchi and pasta with rich, simmered meat sauce. His parents wanted the proverbial better life in the United States, so the family moved to Michigan in 1973, when he was 6.
Many of the dishes Talerico warmly remembers from his youth can be found on Casa Calabria’s menu. They are made with his family’s recipes from Calabrian ingredients shipped in a few times a month. The restaurant also features housemade pastas, antipasto meats cured at a small Calabrian salumeria in the Bronx, octopus from Portugal and fresh branzino flown in from the Mediterranean. Nearly everything I had was good, prepared simply and smartly by three Italian-born chefs who helm the kitchen.
Even before knowing Talerico’s family history, I happily dipped and dunked the bread in sauce to start my meal. The sauce was silky and mellow, a warm wet kiss on the inside of the cheek. The tomatoes for the sauce come canned from Calabria. Talerico also gets olive oil, porcini mushrooms and dried pasta from his native region, where he still has relatives and makes regular visits.
Little touches such as these The ricotta gnocchi, above, at Casa Calabria in Fort Lauderdale, is made from a recipe handed down from owner Frank Talerico’s aunt in the Calabria region of Italy. The baked stuffed peppers Calabrese, left, are filled with ground beef, veal, rice, onions and garlic and topped with mozzarella. The recipe was handed down by Talerico’s late mother Angelina. elevate Casa Calabria beyond the typical red-sauce Italian joint. It opened in February 2016 and has been steadily building a following with a lively bar, live music and an oceanfront view. It is a hotel dining room that feels like a home, with photos of Talerico’s parents and pictures of Calabrian villages and landscapes on the walls. The food and service are good, the prices veer toward the high side, and the atmosphere borders on Bill Murray lounge-singer cheesy as drinks flow and songs get belted out around a red piano.
The front of the restaurant has brick walls and columns near an open kitchen. The back has a wood-paneled ceiling and big oceanfront windows overlooking a pool deck. Some furnishings have the feel of a grandmother’s house. I wouldn’t call the room elegant, but it works. Things got a little hot and cramped on the night of my visit. One of the hotel’s air-conditioning compressors was still out after Irma, Talerico explains, but it has since been fixed.
In a way, Casa Calabria is a happy accident. Talerico started in the food business, working at a relative’s restaurant in Michigan in his teens and opening his own restaurant at age 20. He came to South Florida in 1991 as the franchise owner of some Hungry Howie’s pizza restaurants. He then branched into real estate, buying and renting out condos