Familiarity Breeds Contentment

Leaf through just about any magazine and you'll likely find at least one article that begins "There is...." As a sometime teacher of composition and literature, I can't help but be disgusted by the predominance of what New York Times Magazine columnist William Safire calls a "dummy subject." To paraphrase Safire's February 19 column, the always indefinite there is a lame excuse for the subject of a sentence, and an even weaker way to hook a reader's attention.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way:
There's something awfully familiar about Surfside's newest Italian restaurant, Cafe Ragazzi.

The inkling of recognition we experienced upon entering might be attributable to the pasta-heavy menu, which resembles in form, content, and price those at Oggi Cafe and Deli, Cafe Prima Pasta, and Cafe Tango, not to mention the now-defunct Vecchia Cucina. It could also be that the glass-storefront restaurant is reminiscent of so many of Miami's popular but Lilliputian caffes (Ragazzi seats 42). Or perhaps it has something to do with New York City-trained owners Franco Palalopole and Emilio de Carlo, the latter of whom gigged most recently as a chef-owner at i Paparazzi on Ocean Drive and a chef at Giacosa in Coral Gables. Most likely, though, the atmosphere is responsible for that sense of deja vu -- with its clientele and staff who all seem to know one other (we were immediately identified as first-timers), four-month-old Cafe Ragazzi reminds me of nothing so much as the dining room of an Italian family's house.

The hominess is impossible to resist. The wine list is limited to two bottles from the same Friuli vineyard A a Castellarin pinot grigio or merlot ($18; $3.50 by the glass). Either selection is a stand-up match to a starter of cozze de lo chef, fresh mussels in their shells, drenched in olive oil, white wine, and garlic, a broth patrons literally drain with soup spoons after the shellfish has been consumed. On our visit, the kitchen substituted clams, which worked beautifully. Even more appealing was the suggestion our waiter made when he set down the bowl: "This sauce loves this bread," he said, indicating the just-from-the-oven homemade loaf. He was right.

We also admired a plate of involtini di melanzane, thinly sliced eggplant rolled around mild buffalo mozzarella, roasted red peppers, and assertive prosciutto. A lovely study of contrasting flavors and textures, the rolls were topped with a dollop of tomato sauce. Unpeeled eggplant was the only flaw; the rim of purple skin made the vegetable tough to cut and chew.

We weren't much interested in the rest of the starters, a list of typical carpaccios and antipasti. Instead we turned to the list of pastas and an order of spaghettini al pesto, which the kitchen obligingly reduced to appetizer size and price. An extremely well-balanced pesto comprising fresh basil, pine nuts, and garlic coated the swirls of thin noodles A more than enough, even in the smaller portion, for a table of four to share. We did fulfill an obligation to the lettuce growers of America by trying the insalata tricolore, billed as a mix of organic baby lettuces. Though crisp and fresh, the salad was more like uno colore, consisting of chopped romaine and curly endive. A too-subtle balsamic vinaigrette completed the bland picture.

Cafe Ragazzi supplements a small, reasonably priced menu with a number of more expensive del giorno treats. Owing to customer demand, we were told, an osso buco "special" is always available, though not listed on the menu. We went with a server-recommended grilled veal chop, at $23.95 easily the costliest item on our bill. Slightly tough in places, the meat was nevertheless tasty, finished with porcini mushrooms, whole roasted shallots, and a fragrant demiglace. Norwegian salmon, another special that evening, also showcased shallots in a white wine sauce. A tender, pink-red fillet crowned with a rather skimpy portion of sauteed seafood (one shrimp and two clams) was unimpeachably well-prepared, though (at $16.95) not a stupendous value compared with the pastas, which average closer to eight dollars. For fish fans, a center-cut fillet of salmon brightened with the Italian flag-colored radicchio and green grapes is a menu staple; a fish-of-the-day also makes an appearance on the specials list.

"Nouvelle" potatoes are promised with meat and fish entrees, but customers are more likely to be served a side portion of pasta. We were given a bowl of filling angel hair noodles generously threaded with chopped tomatoes and shreds of basil; these came not only with the veal chop and the salmon, but with the saffron-flavored risotto special, as well. (The kitchen also offered a porcini risotto.) Yellow as an egg yolk and just as rich, the rice dish proved the perfect creamy-starchy complement to the al dente capellini, even if the pairing was accidental.

Cheesy cannelloni were a delicious duo, two pasta "crepes" stuffed with smooth ricotta, sharp Reggiano, and spinach. Heated in the oven until just crisp, the cannelloni were doused with a delicate, if slightly salty, tomato-cream sauce. Lovers of baked pasta dishes also can sample a meaty lasagna.

Don't waste valuable dessert time on tiramisu. A light, homemade ricotta cheesecake was as Little Italy as Surfside can get, a description that's apt for Cafe Ragazzi in general. On the surface, the restaurant may resemble other Miami pasta establishments; inside, honest and warm, it's pure Italian heart. Reservations and credit cards are both out of the question, so stick your hands in your pockets -- along with your cash -- and prepare to wait.

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