ERNIE’S ITALIAN CHOPHOUSE
Article by Valerie Amor Photos by Jon Frangipane
Located on Federal Hwy., halfway between Copans Rd. and Sample Rd, Ernie’s Italian Chophouse presents a minimalist facade that is successfully echoed in the interior design. Entering into one of two rooms, the atmosphere is at once calm and sophisticated with a repetition of whites, grays and blacks that is accented by LED light lamps, offering a restful blue glow, especially appealing as table centerpieces. With an impressive bar top and a large wine cooler, the artisan etched glass windows surrounding the dining area are an elegant touch.
Ernie Potti, the owner, brings his New York Italian heritage with him, infusing the restaurant with traditional family recipes and a confident, warm assurance that everything will run smoothly. Joined by his girlfriend Barbara Borowiec, General Manager Tom House and Executive Chef Gary Wood, it is clear since their opening less than four weeks ago, they have quickly become family, caring about the staff as much as they care for their customers. Routinely sitting down to a family style dinner each and every night before they open, they share ideas and enjoy each others’ company.
Ernie is a restaurant industry veteran, bringing a solid background as the previous owner of three nightclubs that include G Willkers, G Willkers South and Flix. All successful and featuring food available all night. He is also a general contractor. His background clearly shines through in Ernie’s renovation, demonstrating clarity of design and solid construction. Look for the before and after pictures nicely documented in books tucked in on the side of the bar.
With a menu that offers an array of traditional Italian dishes along with some interesting variations off the theme, the Executive Chef Gary Wood, very passionate and dedicated to both the quality of food and the restaurant, is a definite asset. Lacking an ego we sometimes get, he shares, “I just want to cook good food.” Graduating from Florida Culinary in 1997, Wood delights in recalling the time he spent on his own dime with Ron Siegel, a legend in the food industry, to learn and be inspired. Lucky for Ernie customers, it translates well.
We started with a refreshingly simple Eggplant Stack ($14), of sweet, perfectly-fried, panko bread crumb coated eggplant, topped with a thick slice of vine-ripened tomato and freshly-made mozzarella, dressed with an in house made balsamic syrup. This was followed by a Seafood Salad ($15) with calamari and scungilli, piled high and topped with shrimp, thin slices of celery and lemons. It is the organic micro-greens that add that one step up that Ernie promises to deliver.
In keeping with their philosophy to offer dishes with a range of affordable prices, the small plate selection, the Meatballs ($15), arrived with and a scoop of small curd ricotta, nestled in between two large veal meatballs over a bed of fresh greens. Served with their signature San Marzano tomato sauce and grated Pecorino Romano cheese, the meatball family recipe uses milk-soaked fresh bread to give the meatballs their fluffy texture.
What came next can only be described as a wonderful surprise and delight! Grilled Octopus ($19), tossed with warm Limoncello (an Italian lemon liqueur) vinaigrette and cannelloni beans was extremely tender and flavorful. The texture alone should win kudos for the kitchen, but it was the method of cooking that showed the extraordinary care that the kitchen takes to ensure that each and every dish excels. The octopus, first blanched, and then slowly braised for three hours in carrots, shallots, garlic, oregano, thyme and extra virgin olive oil, is grilled and then served atop baby arugula.
Another must try is the Black Fettuccine ($25). The perfectly cooked slender strips of fettuccine, deriving its color from black squid ink, with large tender shrimp and sinfully good jumbo lump crabmeat was tossed with thin strips of shallots in a garlic butter sauce and toasted bread crumbs. Outstanding from visual presentation to texture to taste, this is the dish to request. Spaghetti All’Amatriciana ($19) served nicely, al dente with Guanciale (an Italian bacon), and topped with grated Pecorino Romano cheese, featuring their San Marzano tomato sauce. For those who also like the deeper tomato sauce that traditionally cooks for hours atop Italian stoves, Ernie’s features their Sunday gravy at $30 a person. Very popular and only served on Sunday, this feast is served with round tube paccheri pasta, alongside a platter of sautéed spare ribs, meatballs, mild Italian sausage and beef braciola—Ernie’s grandmother’s recipe.
With three to four specials offered nightly, the filleted fish special (priced daily) was black grouper. A thick, succulent moist slice of fish delight came surrounded by a mage sauce with roasted fresh corn and tomatoes, petite shitake mushroom slices and cannelloni beans. Whole fish is also available, deboned at tableside. Ernie emphasizes that they serve what the menu states, so the Prime Petite Filet Mignon ($40) is just that, prime. Melting like butter in your mouth, it lives up to its name, served with broccoli rate and halved yellow fingerling potatoes roasted to perfection.
Another excellent stand out on the menu is the Pork Chop ($25), a 16 oz. lollipop thick center-cut pork chop, paired with crisp green beans and a wonderfully robust sweet potato mash. The apple compote, served atop the pork chop, features bite-sized pieces of apple, golden raisins and Nueske bacon. The bacon, an applewood smoked meat, comes as a slab where the kitchen slices it, and then lets it slowly crisp in the oven, adding a flavor to the compote that is absolutely addictive. Served with a sauce of sherry, reduced veal stock and sage, is but one more reason to rave about this dish.
So how did Ernie’s Italian Chophouse get its name? It is simple to remember. Just like their food, it should be on the tip of your tongue. Ernie personally meets and greets each and every customer extending an invitation to feel at home offering, as he says, “ Great food, a great time and great service.” Every good Italian restaurant serves warm fresh bread and Ernie’s is no exception. With an interesting mix of ciabatta and walnut raisin slices, the walnut raisin is customer-requested. Be sure to visit on Wednesday and Saturday to listen to the musical tones of the roaming jazz saxophonist.
Their dedication to serving the finest wines is showcased in their large wine cooler, located in the back dining room, along with an extensive and impressive wine list. The wine is served in elegantly shaped Riedel wine glasses. The Quail Ridge Merlot ($10 glass) was smooth. They also have bottled beers from the expected domestics, as well as some impressive selections including Peroni, Stella Artois and Samuel Adams. On the next visit, the Chimay Cinq Cents Pères Trappistes ($14.75) would be an adventurous choice. Made by the Trappistes Monks in Belgian, it comes in an almost two-pint bottle, topped with a cork. The Chimay Blue Ale is also available. Both selections boast an 8% alcohol content.
The meal finished with Strawberries Romanoff ($12) that could easily serve two people. Made table side, Tom House, the general manger, theatrically created a wonderfully simple dessert from fresh sliced strawberries, whipped chantilly cream, vanilla bean ice cream, brown sugar and Kirschwasser, Italian cherry liqueur.
The restaurant is open for dinner seven days a week, Monday – Saturday 5 pm- 11 pm and Sunday 5:30 pm – 11 pm. Ernie’s Italian Chophouse is located at 3150 North Federal Highway, Lighthouse Point. Tel: (954-781-0910), http://erniesitalian chophouse.com. Reservations can be made online.
(This article is for promotional purposes only.)