Picture Perfect

Don't look for Jackie Kennedy or other publicity-shy types at a place named for free-lance photographers. But you will almost always find a contented group of diners at i Paparazzi - a sumptuous restaurant where the food is as bold as those quick-witted, celebrity-spotting shutterbugs.

No one popped out from behind a palm to snap a picture when my party of four arrived at the eatery one recent weekday evening; but our motley crew, including one friend in a baseball cap and others wearing sneakers, was treated with an old-world charm not reserved strictly for Miami glitterati. Throughout the evening we were treated to flawless and friendly service, an increasingly rare commodity at South Beach establishments.

The focal point of the dining room is a large, museum-lighted portrait of an old-time photographer primed behind his tripod - a dashing and harmless-looking paparazzo if ever there was one. Framed black-and-white glossies of leading men and ladies of both the small and silver screens decorate some of the other powder-pink walls; artfully draped swags in soothing colors surround tall windows (one etched with flamingos); and cherry-wood accents, crystal chandeliers, sprays of flowers, and candlelight combine for an opulent setting. With the ocean across the street and an excellent trio of musicians playing "Moonglow," I found it hard to imagine romantic dining could be done any better. But it could, and the chef proved it. The cuisine at i Paparazzi was snazzy without being strange. In this kitchen, Italian classics meet the American Southwest as well as the tropics, and the result is intriguingly delicious.

Dishes on the artfully decorated menu are described in some detail, which suited my party because we came across a number of heretofore-undreamed-of offerings. A half-dozen ingredients are also defined on the menu - a nice touch because not everyone knows the difference between pancetta and prosciutto or aragosta and funghi.

Starters include cold and hot appetizers, salads, soups, and imported and domestic caviars, with most prices ranging from $6.95 to $9.50 (Beluga caviar, priced at $50 per ounce, is a notable exception). Nary a classic has been overlooked here: carpaccio, prosciutto with fresh fruit, risotto, a fresh artichoke stuffed with crab meat, and a trio of baked clams and oysters prepared three ways are but a few of the choices. As for the main course, some pasta dishes can be had for as little as $13.50, and a chicken breast filled with ricotta cheese and covered in a pink cream sauce is only $13.95. But prices escalate rapidly from there, soaring to $25.95 for a lobster tail and jumbo shrimp sauteed in olive oil, garlic, and wine. Most nonpasta entrees hover in the $20 to $25 range.

As I agonized over my first-course decision, my companion took charge of the wine list. Before you could say "Chateau Latour '53" (one of several $500 bottles available), he chose a Bianchi sauvignon blanc. At $16, the dry Argentine white was a considerable distance from the high end of the price spectrum but was delicious nonetheless.

Of the three starters we finally ordered, it is impossible to say which was the best. Peperoni arrostiti con acciughe, roasted mild peppers with anchovies in an olive oil dressing, featured two styles of still-crisp green peppers, some fat and round, others long and tapered. They were fiery and so the word "mild" was inappropriate, but the bits of anchovy and the fish-scented olive oil tempered the heat somewhat. My companion, in his native New Mexican tones of chili superiority, declared the combination of flavors irresistible, and the rest of us concurred.

I ordered pasta e fagioli. In my hometown, Italian immigrants made this bean-and-pasta soup just for the family -it was considered too pedestrian to serve to guests. But I always made a point of hanging around my neighbor Mrs. Labruzzo's house whenever I spotted the soup kettle on the stove, and i Paparazzi's version lived up to my fondest memories. The piping-hot soup was perfect, with beans almost as soft and tender as the pasta, and broth thick with chunks of mild Italian sausage and aromatic herbs.

The third appetizer was devoured with delight. Mozzarella caprese, slices of beefsteak tomatoes and buffala mozzarella with olive oil and fresh basil, offered a combination of taste sensations - the delicate smoky aroma of the mozzarella, the assertive sweetness of the tomatoes and basil, and the light whiff of oil - that almost made me woozy.

We all agreed that the appetizers were superb, but with few exceptions our entrees were as painstakingly prepared and wonderful. I chose from among seafood offerings that included salmon, grouper, Dover sole, and a thick seafood soup, and seized upon the most adventurous (I thought) in a group of innovative dishes. Filetto di pompano e gamberi alla melle featured a fillet of sauteed pompano with a sauce made from apples, almonds, and raspberry champagne. Plump, moist, and delicate, the fish was blanketed in a sauce similar in color and thickness to apple butter. The heady taste of almond and the fizzy, refreshing raspberry champagne kept the topping from being too sweet.

We also feasted on ravioli tre versiones, a plateful of large ravioli, some stuffed with Maine lobster, others with crab meat, and still others with shrimp. The "three versions" applied to more than just the stuffings: three toppings - green pesto, red tomato, and a cream-color bechamel - gave the platter the look of an Italian flag. Some of the sauces, particularly the pesto, overwhelmed the seafood inside the soft ravioli, rendering the taste of the fillings indistinguishable. Perhaps the sauces should be served separately so the diner can control the amount.

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