Penne Envy

Don't bother telling anyone in Miami that Italian food is passe. When Miamians want to eat healthy and light, they think pasta - the new "health" food - and, in turn, Italian restaurant. It's a simple formula, but it works. And in these hard economic times, chichi spots that serve the starch all dressed up in fancy ingredients, yet shy away from calling themselves or their dishes Italian, have fallen flatter than Benito Mussolini.

Of course, location, the quality of the food, and service are also key factors in survival. And one place that appears to have all of these things in its favor is Cafe Versacce, located two blocks west of Ocean Drive on the corner of Washington Avenue and 13th Street.

Versacce's motto - "fashion in dining" - may be pretentious, but the restaurant is not. The look is post-modern, with its granite ceiling and extra-long bar, but the place is not plush: there's no carpeting, no stylish shades on the wide expanse of storefront glass, no paintings. Not your typical South Beach see-and-be-seen haunt, it's more accurately characterized as a come-one-come-all sort of place.

The entire menu consists of less than 40 items, none of which is very surprising. For example, on the evening I visited, the soup of the day was minestrone. But what Versacce does - pastas, pizzas, standard veal dishes, lamb chops, a couple steaks - it does very well. And, unlike many other South Beach restaurants, the waiters - be they handsome, young ponytailed men or middle-aged, Joe Pesci-esque fellows - work as a professional team. For example, the moment we finished our entrees, a waiter not our own asked if we'd like dessert and coffee. Noticing that our waiter was busy with other patrons, he took over without missing a beat.

Dining at Cafe Versacce was near perfect from beginning to end. As soon as we were seated, a basket of homemade Italian bread was placed before us. Light-textured and chewy, it was full of flavor, and the first basketful was one of several we consumed that night.

From a list of about ten hot and cold starters, we chose to share a caesar salad ($4.50). Appetizers run between $4 for the soup to $10.95 for prosciutto (which is imported from Parma) and melon. Our caesar, though not huge, proved to be a smart choice. The fresh, homemade dressing clung to each leaf of Romaine like dew to a rose, the croutons - also homemade - were flecked with herbs, and the whole thing was topped off with slivers of anchovy. It was an encouraging beginning.

Carbo lovers have their choice of eight pasta dishes, five pizzas, and a round of focaccia. Pastas range from $8.50 for angel hair with fresh tomatoes and basil to $13 for fettuccine with meatballs in a sauce of ripe tomatoes. Innovative pizzas include one topped with shrimp, asparagus, tomatoes, wild mushrooms, and Pecorino cheese, and another laden with mushrooms, artichokes, roasted peppers, and radicchio.

Back on his diet after overindulging at successive high school and college reunions, my dining companion found plenty of light offerings from which to choose, and finally settled on the penne all'Arrabbiata. Named for its resemblance to quill pens, the penne boasted a delicious sauce of tomatoes, pancetta (Italian bacon), hot peppers, Pecorino Romano cheese, and a sprinkling of pine nuts. My dining companion was disappointed in the size of the portion - it was served in a standard-size soup bowl - but not in the taste. And after experiencing the wonderful melding of flavors and textures myself, I understood his dejection. Al dente pasta combined with only slightly firmer pine nuts, crunchy peppers, grated Pecorino, sweet, chunky tomatoes, and small cubes of chewy, lean pancetta. Garnished with Italian parsley, the presentation was as colorful as the Italian flag.

Avoiding so rich a temptation as veal in lemon-and-butter sauce or sweet Marsala wine sauce, I chose (from the three seafood offerings) the catch-of-the-day prepared in parchment paper with olive oil, garlic, lemon, herbs, and a smidgen of tomato ($17). Finished tableside, a plump piece of red snapper was steamed in its own juices inside a tinfoil packet - not parchment paper, as indicated on the menu. Nothing was lost with the substitution of foil for parchment; the snapper was slightly sweet and absolutely fresh. The tomatoes were used very sparingly in the treatment of the fish, which allowed the flavors of the spices and the fish's own broth to dominate. A small melange of zucchini, potatoes, and carrots accompanied the main course. The only disappointment was the potatoes, which were a bit mealy and overcooked.

Even the house wine is expensive at Cafe Versacce: $4 per glass, $8 per half-carafe, and $15 for a full carafe. But prices escalate pretty dramatically thereafter; only one $16 bottle - a Fetzer blush - is offered, most are $20 or more, with the highest an Italian red wine that carries a price tag of $48.

My dining companion's diet took a fatal blow in the form of tiramisu ($4), which we shared over after-dinner coffee. Other sweets include cheesecake, chocolate cake, seasonal fruit, and fresh berries with zabaglione, a frothy Italian custard made with sugar, egg yolks, and sweet Marsala. The tiramisu looked and tasted as light as meringue, from the ladyfingers soaked in espresso to the rich and creamy mascarpone cheese.

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