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On the Menu: Seafood speaks Italian at Rino's

Rino Balzano indroduces diners to authentic regional specialties of Italy

Joan M. Lang
October 01, 2005

When it comes to Italian seafood specialties, many Americans know little more than scampi and fried calamari. Rino Balzano knows differently. The chef/owner of Rino’s Tuscan Grill in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is determined to introduce his customers to authentic regional Italian specialties of all kinds.

To that end, he’s designed the menu around a simple core of top-selling dishes that allow him plenty of flexibility to offer daily and seasonal specials — particularly fish and shellfish. He’s also introduced a series of regional menus that highlight the food of various lesser-known areas of Italy.

He’s even considering converting one of his other restaurants, in Coral Gables, into an Italian seafood concept.

Born on the Amalfi Coast in the Campania region, Balzano grew up with an abundance of seafood.

“We had all kinds of clams, maybe 25 different types,” he recalls. “Octopus, sepia, all the different types of fish.”

A particular favorite in the region is the tiny, almost transparent baby fish caught in nets. Called bianchetti, the fish are served as part of a frito misto (mixed fry) of seafood.

Admittedly, some of these species are unique to the Mediterranean, but in the 21 years he’s been in Florida, Balzano has seen the availability of more kinds of seafood explode.

“There are probably more kinds of fish here now than there are in Italy,” he laughs. “We have progressed so much from the days when osso buco [veal shank] was considered exotic. You can get anything you want at the end of an eight-hour flight. There’s no excuse anymore not to offer something different.”

So Balzano brings in Mediterranean fish like branzino, orata (bream) and cuttlefish, as well as all kinds of local species — snapper, grouper, tuna, conch, shrimp — and specialties like baby octopus, fresh calamari and razor clams: “So many kinds of fish,” he observes.

But, “will customers eat them?” Balzano asks rhetorically. “They will if you introduce it to them with passion, tell them a story about it.”

Server training is crucial, especially with a menu that features a fast-changing array of specials. Balzano does “taste-and-tell” sessions with the waitstaff: “I tell them, ‘Guys, I’m going to bring in this product and cook it for you, and I want you to sell it.’”

Servers get the whole rap: what the product is, why it’s cooked the way it is, how it’s prepared. And when they approach the table, they’re fully prepared to transfer the information with passion and conviction.

Customers seem receptive to learning.

“Until recently, most people didn’t understand the difference between grana and parmigiano [two types of Parmesan cheese, aged 12 and 24 months, respectively],” says Balzano. “Now, when I bring in burrata [a special type of mozzarella], I’ll sell 60 a week.”

The same holds true with seafood specials. Rino’s menu touts daily selections from the wood-fired oven and grill, including branzino in a salt crust and other whole market fish. Even octopus sells like gangbusters. One of Balzano’s favorite way to cook it is á la Luciano, in a light white-wine sauce with fresh cherry tomatoes and a little pepperoncini, cooked very slowly until the baby octopus releases all of its savory juices.

“The broth that comes out of them is just unbelievable,” says Balzano.

He also sautés them with garlic and other seasonings, then serves them over flavorful lentils.

Although born in the southern part of Italy, Balzano has traveled extensively all over the country. He began his cooking career in a preeminent Swiss hotel school, worked in several high-end hotels in Europe and then found his way to cruise ships — and thus to Fort Lauderdale, his favorite port of call. Over the years, he’s been involved with 11 different restaurants in Florida.

Tuscan cuisine has proven the most accessible to local diners, but Balzano has firsthand knowledge of the food of virtually every region of Italy: the earthy cooking of Sicily, the delicious pastas of the Emilia-Romagna, the fantastic seafood of the Veneto.

These foods are the inspiration for a series of regional dinners that Balzano launched this summer, starting with his native Campania: mixed antipasto; Cannelloni Pulcinella (pasta tubes filled with beef, veal and tomato sauce); Polpetta e Salsiccia ai Pepperoni (meatballs and sausages in a red bell pepper tomato sauce with ricotta); Dentice Marechiara (yellowtail snapper in a light cherry tomato sauce with basil, garlic and olive oil); and sfogliatelle and baba rum (traditional Neapolitan pastries), accompanied by regional wines.

“So many people know about Tuscany, but what about the Piedmont and the Emilia-Romano and Lazio?” he says. “They have wonderful food and some really great wines.”

The regional menus give Balzano and his staff an opportunity to stay engaged in the learning process and continue experimenting — a vital creative outlet in what can otherwise be a grueling, repetitive business. For Balzano, it is also a chance to evaluate the possibilities for converting another of his Italian restaurants into a more seafood-intensive concept — an idea he is in the earliest stages of considering.

“I want to introduce people to the Italy that I know, through its food,” says Balzano. “It’s my life, and a professional chef who cares about his customer does this.”

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