Belle of the Ball

Aficionados of Laurenzo's Italian food-and-wine emporium in North Miami Beach have long clamored for a sit-down restaurant, and after a number of false starts, the venerable establishment - Miami's answer to Manhattan's Balducci's - reopened Laurenzo's Grill at the Cotillion in late August. Housed in a missionlike structure, the dining room is unlikely to win any prizes for architecture and design, the cuisine lives up to Laurenzo's vaunted reputation for the finest, freshest ingredients.

There is no escaping the fact that the restaurant is part of Laurenzo's catering division, which boasts banquet rooms and a ballroom accommodating 400. Formal wedding photos line the walls, and off-duty buffet tables display a few tacky gewgaws®MDNM¯ (one such example: a miniature fountain with a spray of nylon filament instead of water). A series of identical sponge-painted pastel murals do little to relieve the institutional atmosphere. Once seated at our surprisingly cozy table, we no longer felt like we were attending a wedding reception, and soon my dining companion seemed to stop worrying that someone might try and talk him down the aisle as well.

Laurenzo's serves dinner only on Friday and Saturday evenings, and dishes change seasonally according to what's fresh. But food accounted for only a fraction of the five-page menu, of which four were devoted to wines and champagnes (all the better to toast the happy couple, I guess). As in the market, the choices are vast and affordable (most of the wines cost between $15 and $21). Oenophiles of all budgets are bound to find something. The restaurant even offers one of the few $10 bottles of house wine in Miami - a Marques de Arienzo dry Spanish white, an exceptional value.

From among appetizer offerings such as pate of shiitake mushrooms and herbs, and phyllo pastry stuffed with mussels, scallops, and shrimp in herbed Pernod butter, my companion chose tomatoes with smoked salmon and red onions. The glorious ripe red tomato had been marinated in a light vinaigrette and was stuffed with the fish and onions, with more thin shavings of salmon surrounding the tomato. Barely taking the time to breathe between bites, my ravenous companion finished the delicious dish in record time and commenced staring longingly at my first course.

Of two soups on the menu, I had ordered one of Maine lobster and New Zealand mussels (the rutabaga-and-creamed-artichoke elixir was equally tempting). The bowl nearly overflowed with mussels and chunks of lobster, and a generous sprinkling of scallions gave a nice kick to the rich briney broth. With my companion's help, the soup lasted not much longer than his own appetizer. We were glad for the basket of wonderful homemade rolls to sustain us between courses, because, although the food was excellent, the time that elapsed between the serving of each dish seemed as infinitely long as the Thomas hearings.

After the long pause between courses my companion chose from among three pastas - gnocchi in herbed butter sauce, fettuccine with mixed seafood and herbed pepper sauce, and the one he tried, capellini with fresh tomatoes and basil. The angel-hair pasta was topped with ripe, lightly sauteed tomatoes and emerald-green basil. A heady scent of the fragrant herb wafted across the table as soon as the dish arrived, and neither of us could resist so blatant an invitation. The emphasis at Laurenzo's seems not so much on new creations or innovative combinations, but rather on a basic formula: fresh ingredients with classic touches. We had almost forgotten how thrilling simple could be.

I decided not to go the spaghetti route and so chose from the variety of seafood, chicken, and beef entrees. The Delmonico satisfied a yen for steak and came perfectly cooked to order (medium), coated in an herb-seasoned brown sauce with plenty of butter and garlic. The well-marbled meat was too veined with fat for my taste, but none of the sixteen-ounce cut was left after we had at it. My companion and I also did justice to the crisp dinner salads in fresh balsamic vinaigrette, and to the side dish of sauteed broccoli and zucchini.

We may not have broken the bank (appetizers and soups cost between $3.50 and $8.95, while entrees range from $9.50 for the capellini to $32.95 for a two-and-a-half-pound lobster), but our will was nearly shot. Having thoroughly exhausted all the other possibilities, we just couldn't find room for the Italian ice-cream confection, spumone. We were far too full from the other wonderful dishes. If the way to a man's heart truly is through his stomach, Laurenzo's may even get a proposal out of my dining companion. Unfortunately, it will probably be to one of the Italian chefs.

LAURENZO'S GRILL AT THE COTILLION
2255 NE 164th St, North Miami Beach; 948-8008. Hours: Friday and Saturday from 7:00 p.m. to midnight.

 
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