There’s a hidden gem within a hidden gem at the Crystal Tree Plaza, the sprawling strip along US Highway One in North Palm Beach.
Nearly concealed behind the plaza fountain is La Fontana, a months-old pizzeria graciously serving terrific pies and other well-prepared Italian classics.
But turn a few pages toward the back of the dine-in menu and you’ll discover La Fontana’s delicious secret: its Balkan specialties. That’s because the family behind this new spot — owner Elmaz Tahirovic and his father, executive chef Adnan Tahirovic — is from Sarajevo, the capital city in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
There’s hot, homemade lepinje, a thick and fluffy Bosnian flat bread ($1.75 a slice, often included with other specialty dishes). There’s creamy, fresh kaymak, a house-made clotted cream that resembles a soft, rich cheese ($1.95 as a side dish, $8.95 if served with homemade Bosnian bread). There’s Balkan-style charcuterie – salty, smoky sliced beef and veal sausages, the traditional sudjuk ($10.50).
Or have your Balkan sausages served hot, as in the sudzukice beef and veal sausages that are grilled and served with sweet raw onions ($10.95).
A Balkan mixed grill ($23) gives you a sampling of the meaty specialties such as the cevapi, which are sausage-shaped minced beef links ($6 and $11.95, if ordered separately), and the pljeskavica, which is a savory Balkan burger ($6 and $11.95, if ordered separately), and grilled chicken breast, and the sudzukice, which are the aforementioned beef and veal sausages.
If pizza is what you’ve come here for, know that there’s a delicious Balkan pizza ($14.95, large) on the menu. The smoky toppings of beef and veal sausages, roasted green peppers, feta and mozzarella cheeses melt into a substantial crust that’s thick, yet crispy at the bottom.
Speaking of crust, a must-try here is the burek ($7.75), a savory pastry that’s made of delicate phyllo and stuffed with beef, cheese or a spinach-cheese filling. The spinach-cheese is addictively good, filled with seasoned spinach and a moderate amount of cheese, baked to a flaky and almost crispy finish and not at all limp or soggy (as one might expect from spinach-filled phyllo). The pastry, which looks like a huge, golden Danish, is large enough to share between two or three.
La Fontana’s Italian side of the menu offers some respectable renditions of red-sauce-joint classics. The Chicken Parmigiana ($13.95), for instance, is crispy outside, moist inside and served with a sizable side of pasta that’s sauced in a sweet and garlicky house-made marinara. The Francese dishes ($14.95 chicken, $15.95 veal) are decent versions, egg-battered cutlets sautéed in a nicely acidic lemon, butter and wine sauce.
The fried calamari appetizer ($8.25), a hearty portion of crisp calamari paired with a flavorful marinara, is large enough to be an entrée. Ditto for the meatball app ($3.95), a trio of plump, tender oversized meatballs tucked beneath sweet-savory marinara. If there’s any doubt a Bosnian chef knows his Italian classics, these meatballs should put that to rest. (In fact, it’s not a stretch to expect good Italian fare from a Bosnian kitchen, not when you consider that the chef’s homeland sits just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy.)
So, the meatballs: they make a great shared appetizer, a hearty entrée or a good take-home option – slice them up and stuff them into that outstanding Bosnian bread the next day.
The menu offers plenty of choices for appetites large and small, adventurous and safe: soups, salads, wings, pizza, calzones, and hot and cold hero sandwiches.
But when you’re given the chance to experience something as delicious as Bosnian cuisine, why go for a tuna hero? Here, in the cozy, casual setting – the space formerly housed La Scaletta and, before that, Kubo – the efficient and friendly servers make it easy to be adventurous. They love to describe the Balkan dishes, tell you which are their favorites, even offer a small sample.
The subtext: try it once and you’ll be smitten.
Balkan eateries have become common in New York neighborhoods in the past few years, but the cuisine is rare here. According to restaurant staffers, some Balkan customers drive up from Broward to feast on their beloved cevapi and lepinje. And even in the land of the burger, none is as delicious to them as the Balkan pljeskavica.
Who can blame them? I would drive across a couple of counties for a taste of that burek pastry, or just for a bite of that oven-fresh, homemade bread, served with the slightest smear of that fresh clotted cream.
La Fontana Pizzeria
ADDRESS: 1201 U.S. Highway 1, Suite 38 (in the Crystal Tree Plaza, behind fountain), North Palm Beach
WEBSITE: PalmBeachPizza.net, or Facebook.com/NorthPalmPizza
PRICE RANGE: Moderate
HOURS: Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
NOISE LEVEL: Mostly low-key, with smooth background music. But often there is live music.
FULL BAR: Yes
PET FRIENDLY: Yes, on the large, covered patio
CREDIT CARDS: Major cards accepted
RESERVATIONS: Walk-ins welcome
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
WHAT THE GRADES MEAN:
A — Excellent
B — Good
C — Average
D — Poor
F — Don’t bother