Beach Party

In South Beach, where restaurants come and go nearly as often as the tides, earning consideration as one of the best local eateries is no mean feat. However, for Cafe Carezza the distinction may be a double-edged sword. Housed in the Boulevard Hotel on Ocean Drive, the cafe is a magnet for in-scene locals and visitors alike, and those of us interested in more than just seeing and being seen will have to brave the chichi crowds to savor the restaurant's fare.

With its scaled-down menu, the restaurant does not wander far from the tried and true. But the chef's rendering of classic Italian fare demonstrates that his culinary strength lies in understatement. While nothing here tends to astound with its innovation, the food doesn't fail to impress nonetheless. Starters, which range in price from $6.95 to $8.95 (and $3.95 for soup), include buffala mozzarella, a number of carpaccios (among them filet mignon), and a few hot items to combat wayward cool evening breezes - mussels in white wine, lemon, and pesto, and calamari and mussels in a tomato and fresh basil sauce. The cafe offers only one soup, but its wonderful taste eliminates the need for others. Rich with pasta, the silky meat stock of this minestrone genovese e maltagliati fairly overflowed with celery, zucchini, green beans, peas, potatoes, and just the right amount of herbs.

Of two salads offered, my companion and I tried caesar salad for two ($4.50 per person). Full of crisp romaine lettuce and freshly grated Parmesan, the dish was not, to our disappointment, mixed tableside as in the classic presentation. Croutons were somewhat plain, dry, and altogether too big; and although the dressing was light and fresh, it contained not a whiff of anchovies. On the other hand, nor was there any trace of the now-faddish grilled chicken that's become a bit tiresome. The other salad offering, a simply named Italian salad, contains a mix of radicchio, Belgian endive, arugula, and tomatoes, all tossed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

An extensive list of entrees (pasta, rice, seafood, poultry, and meat dishes are well represented) includes choices such as homemade ravioli stuffed with prosciutto, Parmesan, and mascarpone in a sauce of veal juice and rosemary, and a catch of the day either simply marinated and grilled or baked in parchment paper with a white-wine sauce. Entree prices range from $8.95 for an angel-hair pasta with tomato and basil sauce to $19.50 for either filet mignon grilled and basted with balsamic vinegar or rack of lamb baked in a fresh rosemary sauce.

My dining companion chose pasta con salsiccetta e rucola - homemade fettuccine with veal sausage, fresh tomatoes, and arugula - and declared the mixture hearty yet elegant. The mild sausage was ground smooth, almost to a paste, and seasoned perfectly; and the wide fettuccine tasted fresh and not at all overcooked. Topped with dark green arugula and bright red tomato, the dish was as colorful as it was delicious.

My own entree, the rack of lamb, was a glorious plateful of fork-tender meaty ribs cooked exactly as I had requested - medium, evenly pink inside - and perfectly complemented by the light rosemary sauce. The accompanying vegetables and the polenta with tomato sauce were prepared with as much care as the main dish; and rather than serving as mere window dressing, these added much to my enjoyment of the meal.

Dining at Cafe Carezza is not a budget affair, but you get what you pay for in terms of good food and flawless service. Unfortunately you may get even more - in my case, customers at a nearby table on the patio who constantly (and drunkenly) butted in on my conversations with the waiter. Aside from an unexpected charge for mineral water (we were given the impression it was complimentary - it wasn't), any annoyances that evening were caused by other diners. I have Miami Heat player Rony Seikaly to thank for any semblance of quiet I was finally afforded. When he took a seat at one of the cafe's sidewalk tables, my boisterous neighbors rushed to join him, leaving my companion and me to enjoy our coffee and dessert in relative peace. Despite the interference, I made an excellent choice - sweet, fresh strawberries in a rich, frothy zabaglione scented with marsala wine. The custard provided a refreshing, clean finish to our meal.

My companion and I will return to Cafe Carezza, if not to enjoy the company, then certainly for the wonderful food and service. We can only hope Rony Seikaly will do the same, thereby saving us from future run-ins with South Beach boors.

 
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