Still melt­ing hearts

Ex­cep­tional chef’s ded­i­ca­tion makes his restau­rant the best in Broward

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - SPOTLIGHT - By Michael Mayo

Valentino Cucina Ital­iana in Fort Laud­erdale is the best restau­rant in Broward County, and chef-owner Gio­vanni Roc­chio has a way with pasta that should place him among the na­tion’s culi­nary elite. His house­made trofie — lit­tle twists that look like half-smiles — with chopped seafood and a broth of fish fumee ($33) is the type of dish that earns chefs in big­ger cities Miche­lin stars and awards. Yet Roc­chio is rel­a­tively un­known, an old-school cook who’d rather spend his days mak­ing fresh ag­nolotti and his nights work­ing the line in his open kitchen than ap­pear­ing on TV or con­quer­ing the world with a restau­rant em­pire.

Two re­cent vis­its to Valentino af­ter a lengthy gap re­minded me why I have been a Roc­chio fan since he opened Valentino in a South Fed­eral High­way strip mall in 2006 and why I have loved the restau­rant even more since it moved to a big­ger lo­ca­tion — a gas­tro­nomic tem­ple, ac­tu­ally — be­fit­ting Roc­chio’s talent in 2012. The 100-seat set­ting is so­phis­ti­cated, the servers are pol­ished pros, and Roc­chio, 52, is still sweat­ing over a hot stove and ban­ter­ing with din­ers ev­ery night.

But I also left a bit con­cerned af­ter my sec­ond visit, the week of a menu re­vamp that brought sev­eral new dishes in­clud­ing a retro veal Mi­lanese ($48) and chicken Scarpariello ($34). Gone is Roc­chio’s sig­na­ture veal chop ($68). My con­cern wasn’t caused by any diminu­tion in ex­e­cu­tion, but by what the change may por­tend. Valentino is mak­ing a push to be­come more ac­ces­si­ble, with more dishes at lower prices in the hopes of at­tract­ing a wider au­di­ence more of­ten. Thus, the ad­di­tion of mus­sels ($16) and tagli­atelle bolog­nese ($26). Faced with empty seats mid­week and gen­eral down­ward trends for fine din­ing, it is un­der­stand­able that the restau­rant ad­justs.

My vis­its came dur­ing a time of tran­si­tion. I just hope Valentino doesn’t lose what makes it spe­cial. And plenty re­mains spe­cial, with the restau­rant en­ter­ing its teen years ex­hibit­ing a re­spect for qual­ity, hos­pi­tal­ity and cre­ativ­ity that is in­creas­ingly rare in these parts. It is the one restau­rant in Fort Laud­erdale that stacks up against the best of Mi­ami, Palm Beach, New York or Chicago. If more peo­ple come (and I’m sur-

SUSAN STOCKER / SUN SEN­TINEL PHO­TOS

Valentino Cucina's ag­nolotti car­bonara ($24) made with fresh pasta, pancetta, farm egg and black pep­per. 620 S. Fed­eral High­way, Fort Laud­erdale 954-523-5767, or Valenti­noCuci­naI­tal­iana .comEx­pen­sive to very ex­pen­sive.Sal­ads and ap­pe­tiz­ers cost $14 to $25, pas­tas $24-$36, mains $34-$49, sides $8-$11, desserts $12 Sug­gested, by phone and onlineFull liquor with craft cock­tails and a good se­lec­tion of wines by the glass and bot­tle

Chef-owner Gio­vanni Roc­chio of Valentino Cucina Ital­iana in Fort Laud­erdale prides him­self on main­tain­ing a con­stant pres­ence at the restau­rant, which opened in 2006 and moved to a big­ger new lo­ca­tion in 2012.

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