Revenge of the Birds

To separate cuisine -- or culture, for that matter -- by broad geographical parameters is one of society's most tempting and nauseating tendencies. In America, this pervasive pigeonholing extends to the arts: Consider how writers as contrasted as Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty are casually branded "Southern," along with the likes of James Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote, and others. Which of course they were, superficially: McCullers and O'Connor were Georgians, Faulkner and Welty Mississippians, Capote a Louisianan, and Williams -- ironically though suitably -- was born and buried in St. Louis, Missouri. But this senseless penchant for easy categories shows a wanton disregard for the nuances of individual style and a marked insensitivity toward the specific characteristics of a place. Equally in the preparation of jambalaya as in a discussion of Yoknapatawpha County, command of subtle details makes all the difference.

Where cuisine is concerned,~ nowhere has this culturally ignorant attitude been more evident than among the confounding number of Italian restaurants around the nation bearing the moniker "Northern Italian." The designation is rooted in the Italian mass exodus to America toward the end of the Nineteenth Century, when multitudes of impoverished Sicilians and Neapolitans arrived at Ellis Island. Their immigrant food -- tasty, garlicky, laden with peppers and tomatoes -- was what early twentieth-century Americans presumed to be Italian, though later it came to be seen as poor folk's food by the omnivorous middle class. Nowadays the label "Italian-American" is widely employed to denote this bastardized Sicilian-style cooking, and heaping praise on it is regarded by the molto chic as the equivalent of looking for diamonds in a sow's belly.

Northern Italian, as America's nose-raising restaurant owners would have us believe, is rich man's food. The techniques and ingredients take their lead from the classical French school -- butter, cream, stocks, wine, aromatic vegetables, and fresh herbs -- and successively mingle with more traditionally italiano additions such as olive oil, the aforementioned garlic, tomatoes, and peppers, plus nuts, lemons, and wine vinegars. The problem with this dovecote is that cities such as Bologna, Milan, Venice, Genoa, and especially Florence each have their own lofty history, which is encapsulated in the diversity of their respective cuisines. If America's current crop of Italian restaurants have traveled some distance to address the numerous misperceptions about Italian food in general -- to inform, in other words -- a more specialized approach to its subtle distinctions will be required to truly be authentic. Ask any Italian and he'll tell you.

So take note, you retrogressive restaurateurs: Don't mix milanese with bolognese. How about a strictly fiorentino bistro? Or a veneziano? The dividends, culinary and cultural, would be countless.

Which brings us squarely to the cutting-edge environs of South Beach, where such stereotypical Northern Italian eateries rise -- and fall -- like the tide across Ocean Drive's pulverulent front. The most recently annointed member of the fold is I Tre Merli, which means "the three blackbirds" in Italian. It is by no means the finest Italian food to be sampled in Dade County nor, it must be registered, the worst. Two decidedly beneficial bonuses raise your spirits, two detrimental distractions fall like the Hindenburg on those expectations. But more of the latter in due course.

The good news is that this eatery takes a sui generis stab at cuisine -- and mostly excels. There's a palpably genovese flavor to Merli's menu, and it comes as no surprise: this blackbird is the third restaurant to open under the aegis of I Tre Merli's flagship location in Genoa. (The second is in New York's SoHo district.) Another laudable aspect, a happy coincidence of the Italian-restaurant scene, is price: the most expensiveentree -- beef filet -- costs less than $20. In business now for more than two months, Merli has yet to print wine and dessert lists; all the vinos bear Merli's own labels and the desserts are, as yet, unimpressively run-of-the-mill. But the dinner menu is already a highlight.

It's an intelligently rendered compilation drawn from the Ligurian capital's finest foods, and the variety is remarkable. Among the appetizers is funghi alla genovese con polenta ($6.50), sauteed mushrooms with that uniquely satisfying cornmeal preparation, polenta; two types of mozzarella cheese, fresh with tomatoes, basil, and olive oil ($7.50) or smoked with sun-dried tomatoes and prosciutto ($9); grilled calamari with herbs and lemon ~($7); cold grilled vegetables marinated with balsamic vinegar ($7.50); and one of Italy's favorite starters, cacciatorino con caprino ($7), savory dried sausage and fresh goat cheese. There are seven different salads offered, too, from artichoke to radicchio to endive.

Of these munchable overtures one of the best is the piatto di mare ($8), a delicately flavored marinated seafood salad that serves as a reminder that Genoa, apart from being Italy's largest port, is also one of its most ichthyologically various. Italy's distinguished pesci preparations, memorably recalled here, are seafaring enough to contrast with America's own Pesci -- the actor, Joe -- who's pure prosciutto.

Then there is carpaccio, the favorite raw specialty and rave on this side of the Atlantic. I Tre Merli presents three versions -- beef, salmon, and more unusually, lamb ($9.50 for beef and lamb, $11 for salmon). The pink fish was undoubtedly fresh when I tasted it, but its unbecomingly gelatinous texture suggested insufficient marinade -- in this instance olive oil and green peppercorns. Only in its wafer-thin, sliced presentation did the salmon deflect the image -- though hardly the taste -- of sushi turned scaloppine. Much better is Merli's stellar rendition of a true summer passion for Italians, vitello tonnato ($9.50), the improbably splendid platter of cold, braised veal covered in a sauce of pureed tuna, anchovy, veal stock, capers, homemade mayonnaise, and (optionally) heavy cream. Richer than Rockefeller -- and Ford and Getty, too -- these slivers of matchlessly lean veal work a unique kind of magic with the fish-based sauce.

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