Linguine Franca

By strict definition, a diner is a restaurant that resembles the dining car of a train. Longer than it is wide, it opens early and closes late, if at all, and serves three meals a day to as many customers as it possibly can.

Having spent a good portion of my teenage years in such an establishment -- the social hub of my oh-so-suburban town -- I would add that an authentic diner has a counter; tasty-looking (but not necessarily tasty) cakes; a noisy conversational drone drowning out the jukebox or whatever pop station happens to be playing on the radio; and a brusque, efficient waitstaff. What really makes it legit, however, is the regulars, tables filled with people you know. -- restaurant simply isn't a diner unless you can get up a good game of "Jersey Geography" over your French fries and brown gravy.

Because North Miami's Il Piccolo Diner didn't appear to fit the quintessentially North Jersey diner mold of my youth, I was alternately intrigued by its Italian menu and dismissive of its self-labeling. Call it a trattoria or cafe, I thought, if you have to call it something. But don't presume to be a diner. Some things are sacred.

I was wrong. Il Piccolo, a busy, happy place, met all the criteria -- and then some. On a recent weeknight visit, only one table, which we immediately and gleefully occupied, was free. When a line for dinner does form, says owner Franca Benmoussa, patrons never wait fifteen minutes -- the nature of the business prevents a lengthy stay.

Service is forthright and experienced, not overly friendly, and dishes appear quite promptly. The location (in a strip mall on NE 123rd Street, where it can be difficult to park during the day) and the decor (grungy pink walls and hanging basket-weave light fixtures tinted to match) are not exactly conducive to lingering over coffee. On the other hand, partner Heinz Gasser's homemade white chocolate mousse cake might tempt you into ordering more courses than you had anticipated.

Best of all, customers -- mostly couples and families -- know each other and they know the owners and staff. We watched one man visit three different tables before consuming his house salad and his angel hair pasta. Some read the paper while eating. Other regulars were apparently dining after their workouts, Lycra bodysuits and bicycle shorts looking not at all out of place here.

The homestyle cuisine matches the atmosphere. At lunchtime one can even order French fries with brown gravy (the lunch menu adds delicious entree salads and interesting sandwich-and-chip fare to the list of Italian main courses, while the dinner menu features pastas, chicken, and veal dishes). But gravy could mean anything from the meat-based bolognese that is served over linguine to the mushroom-and-cognac sauce that enhances the chicken Picasso.

In fact, the chicken Picasso is one of the few French-influenced dishes on the dinner menu (chef/owner Luciano Benmoussa, Franca's husband, claims a half-French, half-Italian heritage.) Three fork-tender cutlets, not breaded, were juicy beneath a rich sauce spiked with fragrant cognac. Meaty mushrooms dotted the top. A bowl of al dente linguine dressed with a chunky marinara was served on the side; together with the poultry, it was a portion large enough to make a meal for the next day as well.

From the outset, plates were consistently generous. We started with a hot antipasto, an excellent way to sample several appetizers at once. Eggplant rollatini -- two soft, tender slices of eggplant stuffed with ricotta cheese -- was the highlight of the platter. The smooth texture of the eggplant was complemented by the creamy cheese, a dab of marinara over the top adding sharp tomato flavor. Next to the eggplant, two stuffed pimientos were coated with nicely browned mozzarella. Moist breadcrumbs and herbs made a savory filling. Also part of the antipasto, succulent mushroom caps were given the same treatment as the peppers. We were pleased that the dense, pliable mushrooms had not been overdone. Clams oreganato completed the assortment. A bit too heavy on the oregano, these little mollusks could barely stand up to their spicing. In their favor was a light touch on the oils (my other recent adventures with stuffed or baked clams have been greasy affairs) and a restrained hand with the breadcrumbs. Less discerning chefs like to fill the shell completely, making the clams look bigger. Here, crumbs covered the clam in perfect, if tiny, proportion. We had an additional order of the clams; with the exception of the eggplant, all the items on the antipasto can be ordered separately.

The ratio of ingredients is always extremely important in salad dressings. Frequently I complain that dressings are too oily, without sufficient tang. At Il Piccolo, we sampled the "gourmet" salad, a big blend of arugula, radicchio, endive, cucumber, and tomato. The salad was served with cruets of three different dressings on the side -- creamy Dijon, vinaigrette, and a low-cholesterol mustard-tarragon. All three were outstanding, the vinaigrette redolent of fresh garlic and dill, the others pungent with Dijon mustard. Another lovely note: This may be a diner, but Parmesan and pepper will be grated on your greens at your request.

As an entree, baked ziti also showed proper balance. A huge amount of firm ziti had been mixed with ground beef, ricotta, and tomato sauce, then layered with mozzarella and baked. The result was a terrific casserole, rather than the typical soupy mess. Bits of meat and sauce clung to the noodles, coating them without being overwhelming.

I was certainly taken aback by the size of my main course, linguine with spinach and mushrooms. The enormous bowl of pasta, generously laced with sauteed spinach and mushrooms, was intensely flavored with chopped garlic. Oil was apparent but it served as a sauce, keeping the linguine moist and flavorful.

The latest trend in Italian dining -- small 35-seat eateries such as Oggi Cafe and Cafe Prima Pasta, serving homemade pasta and fresh-baked bread at startlingly reasonable prices -- might seem to apply to 32-seat Il Piccolo. But several things preclude categorizing Il Piccolo as a trendy cafe. While the pasta dishes are among the best around, the noodles are the dried variety, not homemade, and the baguette-style bread is purchased, not baked. A meal here is inexpensive, but not quite as cheap as at the aforementioned places. And Il Piccolo, until a few months ago known as Andre's Diner, has existed in the same location for six years (Andre, a departed partner, took his name with him. Andre's Diner is due to reopen in North Miami on Biscayne Boulevard.) The biggest difference, however, is in the speedy and competent service we found at Il Piccolo, as compared to the gracious but always slow service in the cafes. Despite my initial reservations, I agree with the owners: Il Piccolo is a diner of the highest order. Next time I eat there, I'll probably recognize some of the locals. I might even wear Spandex.

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