da Campo Osteria

Up until I had dinner at Todd English's da Campo Osteria my only experience with the chef had been at one of his Figs restaurants at La Guardia. While that was pleasant enough in between American Airlines flights, it left the field wide open for this South Florida outpost of the chef's restaurant empire.

The restaurant is located in the back of the unassuming Il Lugano hotel in Ft. Lauderdale. The dining room is small and intimate, surprising for such a big-name chef (one would think he would have gone big and splashy). Soft lighting, lots of brick and comfortable deep leather booths give the pace a warm and rustic feel, perfect for the Tuscan farmhouse fare that characterizes much of the menu. My only quibble with the dining room is that it's unfortunate there's no outdoor seating, especially since the restaurant is on the water.

First things first: the bread. Oh, the bread. It's made in-house and ridiculously flavorful flecked with rock salt and Italian herbs. Do ask for seconds, it's that good.
Starting the meal off with the fresh-pulled mozzarella tableside is practically mandatory. A cart is wheeled to your table and an affable mozz-maker process to gently massage the curds in warm water until they reach an almost taffy-like consistency. We opted to pair it with the olive tapenade and tasty little tomatoes. For the most part all the produce we tasted (like the fennel and grapefruit in this feta salad) were incredibly fresh and wonderfully perky with fruity olive oils and crunchy sea salt. 

Those are both light starters which is good, because there's plenty of heavier fare to be had. The butternut squash agnolotti is another must-order and it's rich enough to be shared.

The flatbread pizzas were another highlight - nicely charred crust with great flavor and nice ratio of toppings to cheese. We chose one made with wild mushroom, red onion and fontina cheese that was also flecked with black truffle adding a nice earthy undertone to the mix. 

The nice thing about the menu is you can go with these "smallish" plates priced at about $10-$15 (except for the pasta which was $19) and forgo the larger, pricier main courses. You still get to feast on really lovely Italian food, with clean, fresh, zesty flavors.
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