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This super Mario is not playing around

Background: Blending elements of the Old World and South Florida, Mario Ristorante Italiano and Wine Bar is the sort of high-end-yet-inviting Italian restaurant Coconut Creek has been lacking. Five years ago, 47-year-old chef Mario Spina and his 38-year-old wife, Nadia, opened the restaurant. He previously owned a casual pizza restaurant in Pompano Beach for 22 years. Next year, they are slated to open a more-casual waterfront seafood restaurant at the Sands Harbor Marina in Pompano beach.

Ambience: As you eye each table, the many glasses and bottles of wine everyone has ordered will tell you this is a spot where wine drinkers come to relax and linger. At Mario's, you'll find an Italian-centric wine list, tableside decanters and a wait staff that skillfully guides your party through the wine list.

Clever restaurateurs find a way to include something quirky to remind you of the restaurant years later. At Mario's, that quirk is a large flat-screen TV in the dining room that shows a live video feed from the kitchen. That's in addition to the inviting open kitchen in the back of the dining room, where rising flames from the grill illuminate customers' faces. Behind that opening, Spina buzzes about, wearing a long-sleeve salmon-colored shirt, cooking, checking plates and, every now and then, sipping a glass of champagne perched on the stone ledge. Nadia – tall and elegant in a flowered dress – roams the restaurant, greeting guests and subtly minding the staff.

The decor also makes an impression with Mediterranean accents, including columns and rough stone, paired with chic South Florida elements, such as white furniture, ornate chandeliers, modern-looking tile and dramatic lighting behind the bar. On the north side behind a doorway is a gorgeous private meeting room with a hidden dropdown projector.

Starters: Amid the many strong offerings at Mario's, appetizers are, with a few exceptions, disappointing. The portions are mostly designed for one or two people, meaning you're getting small amounts. The must-get item is the burrata ($14), with tomato and basil drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette garnished creatively with two twigs of dry pasta. We adored the perfect creaminess and body of the cheese, which is often served too watery. Our only complaint is that the plate includes only two tiny pieces of bread, a puzzling stinginess.

A white asparagus soup ($7) – simple, buttery and outstanding – is meant to be savored. Meatballs ($12) have a down-to-earth flavor, are easy on the seasonings and come served with a tasty, grainy dollop of ricotta cheese. Scallops ($14) have a spot-on texture and a smoky, chili flavor. Gambero meraviglia ($14) – two jumbo shrimp fried, butterflied and served with a broccoli rabe and Thai chili sauce – are delicious, but the portion had us performing surgery so all four of us could try a bite. Next time, we'll pass on grilled calamari ($11), which was heavy on the char and arugula flavor rather than the squid itself or even seasonings. A small margherita pizza ($9) didn't offend and is a reasonable starter.

Entree excellence: While the appetizers had us off to a lukewarm start, the entrees really set us on fire. Veal chop alla Mario ($35) finished with a port-wine reduction, mushrooms and white truffle oil. It's one of the best chops we've had.

It's rare for us foodies to have a truly new experience, so we're thankful to Mario's for introducing us to what is perhaps best described as a Chilean sea bass dessert. The Chilean sea bass amaretto (market price, $34 on our visit) is cooked in a sauce made of cream, almond and amaretto macaroon, resulting in a supersweet flavor paired with a perfectly seared, buttery slice of fish. Some may be wary of the unusual concept, but our table was loving every bite of this compelling dish.

Mario's homemade pasta is a delight paired with mussels, jumbo prawns and Manila clams in red sauce ($34). The slight amount of spice from the red sauce makes the already delicious dish a bit more interesting. We wanted to make sure to try the homemade bucatini – a thick, tubular pasta with a hole in the center – so we went for a special: the pasta paired with chunks of steak in a semisweet red sauce topped with an enormous meatball ($27). This pasta, while a fun dish, was upstaged by the even better veal and sea bass.

Sweet! Mario's desserts are better than those found at most Italian restaurants in South Florida. Go straight for the "Vesuvio" cake ($9), a tall slice of cake layered with chocolate cake, cheesecake, chocolate fudge and chocolate mousse. Throw decorum out the window, open your mouth to freakishly wide proportions and take a bite of each layer at the same time. Tiramisu ($8) was a solid offering, but not as fluffy nor creamy as we tend to like. However, chocolate lava souffle ($8) boasted an outstanding semisweet chocolate baked to perfection with a hot, rich interior.

Insider tip: During the summer, Mario's is offering a special three-course meal for $26.95, weekdays from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

Mario Ristorante Italiano and Wine Bar

6370 N. State Road 7, Coconut Creek


Cuisine: Italian

Cost: Expensive

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, closed Sunday

Reservations: Recommended

Bar: Full service

Sound level: Moderate

Outside smoking: Yes

For kids: Highchairs

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

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