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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.
The dining philosophy was also evident in my main course, the dentice belvedere, a filet of red snapper baked in the Tuscany oven with white wine, olive oil, and herbs. More courses are being designed for the previously underused red brick oven, which cooks food quickly, sealing flavor without stealing texture. The well-seasoned snapper, topped with shrimp, scallops, and baby clams, was a firm but flaky fish, succulent if a bit too salty. The main dish was accompanied by a harvest-colored melange of yellow squash, purple eggplant, and red, yellow, and green peppers, all bathed in a tangy garlic butter. Roasted potatoes, dusted with the same mixture, redolent of oregano and a grandmother's warm kitchen, completed the plate.
Another entree -- four lamb chops in a demi-glace topped with porcini (wild mushrooms) and bits of truffles -- was surprisingly thick and so tender the slices folded in on themselves as they were cut from the bone. The hearty, musky quality of the lamb fairly matched the strong and sweet sauce, and the mushrooms topping the whole were a wonderful dark touch. Baby string beans and green peppers added forest colors to the plate. But the highlight was a baked potato and goat cheese terrine, alternating layers of gentle white potato and slightly more dominant goat cheese. This addition was the only speck of dairy product viewed throughout the meal; central Italian cooking, with its roots in healthy grilled, baked, and broiled Tuscan cuisine, forgoes most cream- and cheese-heavy recipes. For a taste of cholesterol, Caffe Baci does offer some pastas, all homemade, in creamy sauces. But these are alternatives.
Federica Rossi, whose theme for the entire restaurant is "evolution, not revolution," has implemented little in the way of decor changes, preferring to keep up the history of the restaurant. She has, however, already begun planning the next phase of Baci's re-introduction to the dining public -- a week-long celebration of the white truffle, which pound for pound is more costly than gold, and can only be found in the Piedmont area of northern Italy for two weeks out of the year. She's able to purvey the truffles, she says, because half of her family is still in Italy, scouting the best bargains and raw materials for her family's Miami venture. In other words, she's got connections. And the Gables has new restaurateurs to rival Pernetti: the Rossis at their Caffe Baci.
Caffe Baci 2522 Ponce de Leon Blvd; 442-0600. Lunch Monday-Friday from noon to 3:00 p.m., dinner Monday-Saturday, 6:30 to 11:00 p.m.
Insalata di gila