By Emily Codik
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By Carina Ost
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These names still count: Mark Militello, Allen Susser, Norman Van Aken, Nino Pernetti. They're the restaurateurs who, in the late 1980s, brought panache and creativity to Miami's previously staid restaurant scene. The pioneers established a triangle of taste: Mark's Place and Chef Allen's to the north; Van Aken's a Mano to the east; and, to the south, the two cafes, Baci and Abbracci, that were Pernetti's bastions of the Gables's fine dining. These days, due to the heat-seeking migration here of some of New York's top chefs, they're not exactly young turks any more. But in terms of new, fresh cuisine, they've never let us down.
When two of them left behind the restaurants that made their names, however, it sent tremors through Miami's restaurant world. In fact, we'd barely measured the first quake -- Van Aken's springtime departure from a Mano, and his subsequent legal battle with the restaurant over ownership of the name -- when an aftershock rolled our way: Nino Pernetti had sold Caffe Baci.
To the restaurant community, the sale of Baci was almost equivalent to the bartering of one's first child. After opening the restaurant in the fall of 1987, Pernetti made his reputation at this cornerstone of Coral Gables. His tremendous floral centerpieces practically became a trademark; his sophisticated elegance raised the level of service in other area restaurants. And his kitchen spawned other kitchens: first his Caffe Abbracci, then Domenico's, which former manager Domenico Diana established mere blocks away from the Baci empire.
Fortunately, the Rossi family that bought the restaurant in July is no evil Rumpelstiltskin, come to steal the precious babe. The Rossis, an Italian clan that had owned a restaurant in Pescara, took over immediately after they closed the deal, but kept virtually everything Aexcept the menu Aintact. This includes the rave reviews, awards and commendations (including one from the Venezuelan government) that hang in their customary places.
Pernetti's influence is felt in other ways. Co-owner Federica Rossi says that that he has been a wonderful mentor, offering good, positive advice. She and her family have a healthy respect for his restaurateuring skills, with which they were first impressed as vacationing patrons of the cafe. They harbored so much respect, in fact, they weren't satisfied with just wanting to eat there. They wanted to own it.
The Rossis may have saved Caffe Baci from a slow and painful decline.
Prior to the sale, colleagues and friends had made negative comments, or as negative as Baci received, anyway. Food was "good," not "great." Service was impersonal. One culprit may have been a renovation which increased the number of seats to almost 120 but did nothing to alleviate the crowded tables. Perhaps the kitchen was overburdened, the staff tired. Still, the crowds had significantly lessened, making it possible, at times, to dine without a reservation.
I wouldn't advise trying that now. As the media and word of mouth have spread the change of ownership throughout Miami, Baci well-wishers have thronged the foyer. Even so, we were seated rather quickly.
Management does its best to keep up with the crowd; indeed, it seems to thrive on the challenge. Paolo Retani, retained as manager from the original Baci, could probably be gracious in a gas station. He was aided by Federica Rossi, acting as hostess, who supplied everyone waiting for tables with complimentary glasses of asti spumanti. Or nearly everyone. We had to request ours, and even then didn't receive it until seated.
Once the flow of complimentary items began, however, they didn't end. Shortly after we received the wine, silent busboys laid long, thin breadsticks in sealed paper envelopes across our plates. Rosemary-laced focaccia, or flat bread, hard around the edges as if heated and cooled one too many times, was immediately followed by a cloth-wrapped bread basket filled with torpedo-shaped rolls. Our table began to look like a bakery. The service was so rushed that we feared the entire meal would be marked by frenzied servers and under-prepared dishes.
Our worries were alleviated by the arrival of menus and a friendly waiter. The menu, undergoing a gradual renovation in order not to confuse or alarm skittish Baci regulars, still boasts some old favorites. New recipes, family traditions added by mother Sandra Rossi and implemented by chef Mimmo Juliani, blend in seamlessly. Originally from Bari, a city in southern Italy which is known for its fine cuisine, Juliani maintains the careful hand and precise touch so necessary to the Mediterranean cuisine Baci now offers.
A beautifully light hand was evident in my insalata di gila, a shredded mix of red radicchio, Belgian endive, and arugula. This slightly bitter toss was sweetened with chopped tomato, sharpened with a hint of onion, and dressed almost invisibly -- scented, really -- with an herbed vinaigrette. The combination of flavors was a delight to the palate as much as the spin of red and green was a joy to the eye.
My partner's appetizer, a carpaccio of Norwegian salmon and yellowtail snapper, also presented a lovely picture. The alternating slices of devilish red and ethereal white, served on a contrasting bed of arugula, had been marinated in peppercorn and fresh ginger. A refreshing sprinkle of olive oil and lemon dressing topped the just-chilled fish. The addition of yellowtail snapper exemplifies the philosophy of the restaurant: to serve classical, seasonal dishes that combine local and imported materials.