On the other side of (railroad) tracks
Fla. farm-to-table restaurant attracts a wealth of attention
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Three attractions lure Palm Beach residents over the Flagler Bridge to West Palm Beach: the Kravis Center, the cinema, and grandchildren arriving at the airport. Now you can add one more destination to the list. The year-old Dolce de Palma restaurant, which is situated along the railroad tracks by an industrial park, in a space that used to be a gas station. On any given evening, Mercedeses, Bentleys, and Porsches are crammed into the parking lot. Their owners - in cashmere twin sets and Brooks Brothers blazers - sit at cozy tables inside. Occasionally a woman will rise from her seat and a waiter takes the cue. He strides over, smiles broadly, and extends his arm. "Ma'am, may I offer you the key to our restroom?" he asks. "I am happy to escort you there. It's outside, around the building and up the ramp." Not exactly what Palm Beach residents are used to. You might say that Dolce de Palma is on the other side of the tracks.
This is the domain of Medfield native Anthony de Palma, who has made a name for himself with farm-to-table food, serving diners used to more luxurious surroundings in one of the area's more humble establishments.
De Palma, 35, gleaned inspiration for his restaurant from many mentors. He traces his interest in simple fresh flavors to his grandparents, who emigrated from Avellino, an agrarian town near Naples. De Palma inherited their culinary traditions: canning tomatoes, making wine, raising chickens and rabbits in the backyard. "The animals were our pets until they came to the dinner table," de Palma says. "We were teased on the school bus. Kids said we smelled like a kitchen: salt cod, fried onions, and meatballs."
Today at his restaurant here, nearly everything is homemade, from the mozzarella and mayonnaise to the marinated antipasti vegetables and baked goods. In the entryway stands a rainbow case of gelato, also made on the premises. The lemon flavor comes from Amalfi Coast citrus and demonstrates de Palma's instinct for when to splurge on superior ingredients. Served in plastic cups with paddle spoons, the gelato evokes a youthful feeling. All afternoon and evening, people stop by to buy gelato from the cafe in the front of the restaurant. "Customers think, 'I want to walk around a bit, watch my ice cream melt, and then have another after dinner,' " says de Palma.
Except for a few specialties - margherita flatbreads, wild boar Bolognese, and deconstructed Caesar salad (served with an oozing soft egg) - the menu changes daily. "With the year-round growing season, it's an agricultural mecca," says De Palma, who has used both mango and avocado he found growing on the street to make gelato. "I say to the fishmonger, 'I need 20 pounds of fish, whatever you're cutting right now.' " Recently, Rene Michelena, the nomadic Boston chef, joined the kitchen. His tasting menus feature alligator, ostrich, and skate wing.
De Palma, who apprenticed in Italy, also cooked at New York's Union Square Cafe and in Boston with Lydia Shire, Jody Adams, and Jim Dodge (formerly at the Museum of Fine Arts). On a visit to Florida, de Palma saw lots of opportunities for farm-to-table fare along the corridor from Jupiter to Pompano Beach. He settled on West Palm Beach and started a gelateria in 2005. Then he added a lunch menu while the hunt for a perfect location continued. A year ago, after extensive renovations, he opened Dolce de Palma in this unlikely spot.
The chef is surprised by the number of diners who have found him. "The diversity every night is fascinating, and I'm still trying to understand the dynamic," he says. Some customers come from very large homes "only to have to sit at a table a foot away from their neighbors. At first, they're reluctant, but by the end of the night they're sharing food off each other's plates."
This is his edgy world by the railroad tracks.
Dolce de Palma. 10000 Okeechobee Rd. West Palm Beach, Fla. 561-833-6460; www.dolcedepalma.com