A Brick Oven Beauty

For centuries wine has been offered in invitation and friendship to visitors of the home. In many households, particularly European ones, wine is the refreshment of choice. Sometimes this wine is actually made by the owner of the home. Perhaps this is how one of my favorite traditions in dining establishments, the presence of a house wine, was begun.

Unfortunately, the true meaning of "house wine" has been distorted by the modern process of mass production. Most restaurateurs interpret the term to mean whatever can be bought cheaply in large quantities. Some even run their house wines through the same taps they use for soda and beer. The horror, the horror.

I was therefore surprised and delighted to find an authentic house wine at the month-old La Sacrestia, a Roman restaurant that opened a second location in Coral Gables in honor of its hundredth anniversary. The original La Sacrestia has served the same wines -- a dry white and light-bodied red from the Frascati region in southern Italy -- since its inception. The restaurant's clientele liked the wine so much, its owners bought the vineyards.

Though La Sacrestia is not yet as well known as Lombardi's (also newly opened in Bayside), owner Nando DiFilippo, Jr., is just as much a master of publicity as Alberto Lombardi. For weeks I've been reading advertisements and press releases about La Sacrestia. The menu devotes an entire page to the trattoria's history, design, and philosophy. Tabletop fliers announce the same. Even the waitresses are in on the game, willingly spouting informed answers to any question we could pose. I had expected moderate self-promotion, but this seemed like aggrandizement. After all, don't many other restaurants claim their pizza to be "the rave of Rome"? What makes La Sacrestia's wood-burning ovens any different from those in, say, Miami, where hot bricks are the newest wave?

Maybe it's the master craftsman DiFilippo imported, like pasta from Italy, to build his ovens stone by stone. Maybe it's the management of Oreste D'Annunzio, relocated from the first La Sacrestia. Or it could be the reminders of Rome that exist on all sides, from the stained glass to the murals to the menu's front-cover reproduction of a feasting Dominican monk. This restaurant succeeds despite its prefabricated reputation.

There's great competition in Coral Gables for fine Italian dining. Carpaccio is as common as coleslaw. The advantage of La Sacrestia's menu is that it doesn't reach beyond itself. Even though Miami's version of La Sacrestia, thanks to its upscale address, is more formal than the Rome original, it still serves a traditional trattoria assortment of soups, salads, and antipasti. La Sacrestia doesn't care if you've eaten clams sauteed with white wine, garlic, and tomatoes ($6.90), bufala mozzarella and tomato salad ($6.50), pasta e fagioli ($3.75), caesar salad ($4.50), or carpaccio de bresaola ($9.95) a thousand times before. The chefs suspect this is the only place you'll come back to eat them again.

Pasta sauces range from carbonara ($9.95) to Gorgonzola ($10.50) to pomodoro ($11.95). We tried a house special, ravioli stuffed with smoked salmon in a tomato cream sauce ($10.95). The sharp, salty interior reflected like a headlight the blander blanket. And the serving was amazingly generous, if you consider that ravioli, mistakenly believed to be very filling, is usually in league with oysters on the half shell -- a half-dozen deal.

We began with mussels ($5.75) seasoned with bread crumbs and baked in the famed and painstakingly built oven. The mussels were timed perfectly, not too tough, and not overwhelmed by the crumbs either. Rather, the two complemented each other, juice from the shellfish moistening the bread crumbs, which in turn provided an enticing cover on this old favorite.

For a heaping serving of fresh lettuce, try the insalata mista della ($4.95). Rughetta, radicchio, and romaine share space in an olive oil and vinegar toss. I could make a meal from this light salad and the most innovative replacement for the customary bread basket I've yet seen in the Gables -- a water dough that has been stretched into a pizza shape, sprinkled with oil and rosemary, and baked. All cultures have a version of this cracker bread. In ancient Egypt the slaves baked it on desert rocks and called it matzoh; in modern England the dough is shaped into small circles and named water crackers; in Mexico tortillas are heated into crisp bubbles. At La Sacrestia, the disks are made to order for each table, not stacked on top of the ovens and left to dry out, and the rosemary is spread with a discriminating hand that understands the potency of the herb. It's also a welcome change from the focaccias, bruschettas, and caponatas that have become a fad.

My main course of swordfish ($16.50) eclipsed everything on the table, though my husband disagrees (he's still raving about his salmon ravioli). The fish is a house specialty, in a tangy vinegar-cognac sauce that was a welcome change from the fruits I've come to expect with local swordfish. Another pleasant surprise was the method of preparation. Most of us have only eaten swordfish grilled, and so anticipate a certain chewy texture, much like that of a steak. But this fish flaked like sea bass, moist and tender as an Elvis ballad. Marked briefly in a skillet (a quick browning on each side), the swordfish was then baked in, yes, the brick oven. Though these ovens look to me like giant hornets' nests, I wouldn't say no to having one in my back yard. The food they produce retains so much of its natural flavor it would taste almost steamed, were it not for the additional seasoning the wood and bricks impart.

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