Rome If You Want To

Many restaurants don't survive Miami's off-season, but judging from the number of new kids on the block (especially the South Beach block), this is no ordinary South Florida summer. After a nostalgic Friday Night Live concert a few weeks ago, my dining companion and I shagged up Washington Avenue to the two-month-old Neroni's, a recent Italian addition to the Beach's dining scene. All the outward signs here indicated a great restaurant, but to paraphrase a Patsy Cline tune, they only built us up to let us down.

With classy, classical style, Neroni's ambiance soothes without sedating. Delicate, understated chandeliers bathe the small mauve-and-rose room in a romantic, gauzy light. Sprays of fiery gladiolus atop a crayon-red room divider with built-in fish tanks provide bold color accents, but the most striking features of the narrow space are the hand-painted murals adorning the walls. These last are mild bacchanalian scenes of Italian folks, statuary, and architecture.

The owner, Angelo Neroni, apparently still believes in customer care. His courtly service exactly fit the mood of this cozy place. The maitre d' actually addressed my companion by name throughout the evening, and when a pregnant woman at another table felt a bit dizzy, she was quickly handed a cold compress fashioned from a fresh napkin. Personal touches and thoughtfulness abound here, from the warm, rosemary-scented bread to the continually replenished supply of bread sticks to the starched white linens. The wine list offers about 30 good choices from Italy, France, and California, the least expensive of which costs $15. The pleasant house white from France is an excellent value at $13 per bottle.

Despite extensive offerings in every conceivable category, the menu is nonetheless uninspired and uninspiring, its descriptions as lackluster as the bill of fare at a school cafeteria. Consider, for example, filetti di pesce impanati, a dish described as "breaded and fried fish filet," hardly seductive enough for a $16.50 dish. The same is true of brodetto di pesce con crostacei or "seafood stew", misto di pesce alla brace or "mixed seafood grilled" (neither of which costs less than $20), and an infinite number of other dishes. The waiter was most willing to answer questions, but we could have kept him there, filling in the descriptive blanks, until the next evening's meal. Next time we visit Neroni's, suggested my companion, we should bring along someone fluent in Italian (he also suggested that someone be Sophia Loren...).

Having decided to skip the prosciutto and melon appetizer in search of less pricey starters (at $12.95, this dish costs nearly twice what some other local places charge), I tried a mixed green salad; my companion sampled baked mussels with tomatoes and herbs. To my amazement, my greens - described on the menu with no more elaboration than "mixed salad" - were an extravaganza of red-leaf lettuce, red onion, radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots, all kissed by a vinaigrette that achieved a perfect union of tart and sweet. My dining companion's mussels numbered at least a half-dozen, although he devoured them so quickly I lost count. When he finally allowed me a tender morsel, I understood his rapacious appetite. The fragrant herbs and thick chunks of tomato gave the dish not only appealing color but wonderful flavor as well.

It seemed, though, that the appetizers were to be the high point of the evening. My risotto entree (one of three offered) was a major letdown. Described only as "rice with seafood," the whole preparation had been stewed in a sweetish tomato sauce that overwhelmed the clustered rice, cheese, any herbs intended to add nuance, and some bits of chewy octopus and squid mired in the lumpen mixture. About eight shellfish surrounded the risotto, and these oysters, clams, and New Zealand mussels were superb; but it was as if the bride was overshadowed by the grander style of the wedding attendants.

My dining companion appeared even more despondent than I as he gazed upon the formidable carbohydrate on his own plate. His bucatini all'amatriciana turned out to be chubby spaghetti with a thick tomato sauce that even KO'd the goat cheese and fatty, chewy chunks of bacon. He found the dish heavy yet unsatisfying, and began to steal clams from my plate.

The prices do little to make up for the disappointing dishes. Appetizers can cost as little as $4.95 for fried squid or a mixed salad, or as much as $12.95 for the aforementioned prosciutto or a seafood salad known as insalata frutti di mare. The pastas are no cheaper; they range from $8.50 to an $18.50 top-of-the-line dish with lobster and tomatoes. Overlook the steep price, though, and you'll find some of the more creative entries on the list. Spaghetti benders looking for a spot that features spunkier, spicier pastas will revel in spaghetti alla Neroni's, with garlic, olive oil, shrimps, green pepper, and red pepper; and spaghetti alla puttanesca, with tomatoes, tuna, anchovies, garlic, and black olives.

For dessert we shared a beautiful tiramisu, served on a plain white platter and resting in a white cream sauce. A border of tiny red hearts stood out against the white of the cream and the plate. The other desserts available were pedestrian (ice cream, fruit, and pudding), although the zuppa Inglese sounded magnifico when we finally heard about it (actually, we read about the soupy rum-custard cake later in a cookbook). Offered on the hand-written list of specials, the zuppa confused us - my dining companion inquired about it before our meal because he thought it was a soup appetizer. The waiter informed us that it was a dessert but said nothing more; and when he took our dessert order, we had both forgotten about the special dish.

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