Proud Papa

For every neighborhood there should be a special restaurant to serve its dining needs. A place where locals can enjoy a pleasant ambiance, without attitude, and perhaps even engage in conversation. Where the menu stimulates without indulging in excess, particularly concerning price. Where the cuisine is so consistently and exquisitely prepared that the only "off" nights are the ones when the restaurant is closed. Yes, that great and elusive American dream -- the perfect neighborhood restaurant. I've searched for it in every city I've ever lived. I believed in it. And then I met South Beach.

In any community, a dedicated search can be a year's undertaking, requiring a meal in every restaurant, not to mention the return visits that serve as reality checks. But in South Beach's one square mile, the task is complicated by the fact that the area resembles less and less a 'hood than it does a culinary war zone. The sheer number of restaurants makes repeat visits for the culinary adventurer unlikely, if not impossible. In a reversal of a trend from previous years, it seems more restaurants have opened this past July than closed for vacation the last one. Talk about job stress.

The main philosophy behind summer premieres is to practice on the locals in order to make good on the winter tourists. And most of us don't mind the options presented by the burgeoning multitude of restaurants. But every once in a while I need the comfort of a familiar menu, an acknowledged favorite dish (that I don't have to cook myself), and a room where I always feel welcome. It's a rare find in the neighborhood that is South Beach. It's even more unusual to discover that a newcomer, Pappamondo, is just such a place.

An Italian trattoria on Washington Avenue, Pappamondo opened in the same location once occupied by another Italian restaurant, Piccolo Mondo. The similar names are only a coincidence, but irony is at work here: Piccolo Mondo, which closed seasonal doors to the stagnant sidewalk last summer, never regained its clientele and ultimately failed. Pappamondo, on the other hand, began operations in late April, with full and eager knowledge of the modest versus the manic seasons. Proprietor Stefano Roncon brings some SoBe savvy to the operation, having waited tables for two years at the respected Ocean Drive establishment Caffe Milano.

A native of Genoa, Roncon, along with partners Stefano Barbagallo and Marco Stratone, is content to build his clientele one resident at a time. Confident but not cocky, he knows winter will bring not a dismal wind but an influx of dining dollars; he also knows that residents often direct tourists to favored restaurants. Building Pappamondo's local reputation as a comfortable, classy trattoria is paramount.

He is attempting to accomplish this by monitoring each aspect of the operation. In the kitchen, he does prep work, though chef Patrizio Di Bari -- imported from Milan and the Stresa, a culinary academy -- needs little assistance with his homemade creations, from bread to pasta to dessert. On the floor, he expertly supervises a skeleton staff that somehow seems fully fleshed, perhaps because Roncon himself also waits tables. On a recent visit, he was our server, a gracious professional seemingly emulated by his employees. (Over the course of several meals, we have never experienced anything but a genuine welcome.)

This is the image I carry with me of a true trattoria, which Pappamondo fulfills: a still, warm room, open to a busier sidewalk, the air pushed tenderly aside by Kenny Scharf-inspired ceiling fans. Done in shades of blond and bronze, Pappamondo's light wood floors, golden stucco walls, and oversize mirrors (wall coverings, practically, sure to be a narcissist's delight) conspire with some hefty wine racks, local artwork, and potted palms to convey the very picture of Italy. You won't find too much of the chill of bottled air here, just as you won't find the dried and boxy pasta, the premade sauces, or even the store-bought bread.

Our recent dinner began with a complimentary piece of bruschetta, notable for its firm toast that held with integrity the chopped herbal tomatoes. A basket of hand-rolled bread followed, two different kinds: a sweet sesame flat bread, chewy like a focaccia but more dense; and a country loaf with a lusty crust and a beautiful, downy center. Roncon says this ambitious kitchen work may cease with season and give way to a commercial bakery's bread. Finally there's a benefit for us locals to enjoy, but I regret that it may be only temporary. Perhaps a compromise is possible: one bread from the restaurant's ovens, the other from an outsider's.

The antipasti were excellent accompaniments to the delicious baskets. Though the air-cured beef with grapefruit sounded intriguing, and the melon with prosciutto, an astonishing pink mound of Parma prosciutto and honeydew, looked tempting as they passed by our table, we decided on the gamberetti con fahioli in salsa di olio e prezzemolo. A generous pile of medium-size shrimp, fresh and tightly curled, and white cannellini beans were lightly coated with flavorful parsley and olive oil; additional olive oil was brought to the table as a burnished, functional centerpiece. The tris tropicale, a wonderful combination of shelled and shredded crab meat, sturdy hearts of palm, and yellow, buttery avocado also vied for attention on the table, a lovely study in silver and gold.

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