Venice, Anyone?

The restaurants on Ocean Drive still have the capacity to surprise me. Just when I think I know what to expect -- mediocre fare, lousy service, wide-eyed tourists -- a place like Pane Caldo Ristorante Italiano comes along and quiets my instinctive distaste.

Or some of it, anyway. On the night we visited, service was astonishingly poor at this Venetian ristorante, a sister to the successful Chicago flagship of the same name. Short on staff, the South Beach version was chaotic, with one waiter working a busy dining room of 60 seats all by himself; we had to wait half an hour before he came to take our order. And plenty of out-of-towners were in evidence, armed with their weapon of choice, the flashbulb-popping Instamatic. Then again a fair share of locals had turned up for dinner, too, as had some members of the band Gipsy Kings, whose members launched into an impromptu performance between courses. This isn't to say that one should expect a concert with every meal at Pane Caldo. But on their own, the creatively prepared dishes can be show enough.

A basket of homemade bread contained poppy-seed breadsticks, along with pieces of an herb focaccia and a crusty Italian loaf, proof that the restaurant's name, which translates as "warm bread," was no misnomer. Ramekins of a bruschettalike topping (chopped tomatoes, basil, garlic, and olive oil) and a robust black olive tapenade replaced the typical butter or olive oil as spreads.

A large yellow onion was a container for an appetizer of roasted chicken and sausage. Halved and scooped out, the onion was first grilled, then filled with smoky hunks of the meat, which were tasty if a trifle tough. Studded with chopped onions and braised Napa cabbage, the mixture was filling and rich, far better than a second starter of duck and chicken dumplings. Two flat ovals of minced poultry were more like meat patties than dumplings, dry and pasty despite the fact that they glistened with a sheen of oil. An over-vinegared centerpiece of onion comfit marmalade countered the blandness too sharply and provided little added moisture.

A decorative carpaccio rekindled our interest in the appetizers. Overlapping slices of raw beef enclosed an "eye" of subtle prune, the fruit adding just a hint of sweetness. In the center of the plate, tiny diced vegetables and a few romaine leaves were coated with a caesarlike dressing and a dusting of Parmesan cheese.

Pastas are billed on the menu as the primi course, but plates are big enough to share as a first course or to order as an entree. We chose the latter, ordering homemade fettuccine with onion and spinach in a light tomato sauce. "Light" turned out to be misleading, given the thick stickiness of the sauce, but the tomato-onion flavor was intense, shreds of fresh spinach adding color if not flavor. The freshly made pasta was superb, perfectly cooked and with just the right amount of resistance.

The same held true for a delicious, fragrant dish of bigoletti, homemade spaghetti served with a dry sauce of assorted seafood, whole chickpeas, small white Roman beans, and diced plum tomatoes. The variety of toppings -- succulent, butterflied jumbo shrimp and gigantic blue mussels, as well as seared bay scallops and tender calamari rings A was impressive, especially given the plate's modest price tag ($14.50).

Saltwater pleasures continued with a risotto agli asparagi con aragosta, one of the three risottos offered nightly. A steaming plate of arborio rice, perfectly creamy from the constant stirring a good risotto requires, boasted a curled half-tail of Maine lobster, with more chunks of the sweet meat scattered throughout. Chopped asparagus contributed texture and clean flavor.

Having stuffed ourselves with pasta and rice, we limited ourselves to one of the six meat entrees offered on the menu, a fantastic portion of grilled double lamb chops. Precisely medium rare, the lamb was coated with a garlic, rosemary, and mustard sauce, and served with a handful of sugar-snap peas.

Though the restaurant's pride in its baked-on-the-premises bread is more than justifiable, desserts aren't deserving of such self-congratulation. A chocolate mousse cake was hardly what we expected, and so elaborate as to be ridiculous. Encased in dark chocolate leaves, a round, individual-size portion featured meringuelike layers spread with a milky chocolate mousse. In the center, the only burst of actual cake was drowned in a liqueur so strong it tasted less like chocolate than like grappa, a substance I'd rather use to fuel my car than my body; on top, a thick layer of cocoa powder puffed into the air like pepper every time we tried to penetrate it. Two Kool-Aid-hued sauces, one aqua, the other tutti-frutti red, were the backdrop; a spun sugar butterfly, perched atop a strawberry that had been coated with the same mixture, served as garnish. Powerfully bad, but at least it failed with conviction.

Similarly, restaurateur Antoine Cedicci doesn't seem to be going about any of this business halfheartedly, regardless of the risk. He opened up right next to a Mano in the Betsy Ross Hotel, in a space that has seen the failure of two establishments, the Stars & Stripes Cafe and its successor, Mediterraneo. Cedicci gambled even more by removing the horseshoe bar that had dominated the center of the dining room and increasing the number of seats so that patrons could be packed together like anchovies in oil. And unfortunately, customers whose tables aren't ready have nowhere to wait but on the pavement (this discomfort could be remedied by eliminating a few of the 80 outdoor seats and building a bar area on the porch).

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