Getting Mushy

I have a friend who likes to order his pasta al dente. I laugh every time we go to a restaurant together. In this age of trend-conscious restaurateuring, springy noodles cooked "to the tooth" are a given, his have-it-my-way directive equivalent to ordering a Whopper "on a bun, please." Or so I thought, until I dined at Botticelli Trattoria. I could have used my friend's dumb persistence at this two-year-old pasta palace, where every single dish of noodles was an overcooked, mushy mess.

I'd been looking forward to testing Botticelli's reputation for some time. When the 36-seat eatery opened in an unwieldy strip mall in Kendall in 1993, its attentive pricing and plentiful portions attracted Italophiles from all over Miami, not just those south of downtown. Herald critic Geoffrey Tomb proclaimed it "such a gemstone of a find that one hesitates to take it public." And earlier this year, he raved about Botticelli's "pluck and prices" when he reviewed its sibling restaurant in Coral Gables, Botticelli Trattoria Tre, which has double the number of seats in a slightly more elegant atmosphere.

I had another reason for being curious about Botticelli. Like a mother with more than one child, I always feel guilty for playing favorites. I've paid too much attention, both publicly and privately, to Oggi Caffe and Caffe Da Vinci (both owned by Eloy Roy), and to Cafe Prima Pasta and Cafe Primola (both owned by Gerardo Cea). Cousins by marriage who share more than a relative or two, these Argentine pasta mobsters serve the same great homemade pasta, manufactured at the Oggi location.

It was time to leave the Family.
Not that leaving the Family meant leaving the country. Botticelli proprietor Jose Luis Pawelek is Argentine by birth. He trained as a manager at Caffe Baci and Brasserie Brickell Key before opening his own Italian ventures with his wife Catherine. He plies his expertise at their first location, while she mostly runs the second.

Our meal at the original place, a casual, narrow storefront warmed with gold-painted walls and countrified with dried flower arrangements, began beautifully, albeit after a slight delay A we'd made reservations and there were plenty of empty seats, but our table wasn't ready when we arrived, and the host seemed surprised we'd actually shown up. Once we were seated, a basket of hot rolls was delivered along with a delicious homemade caponata A a blend of eggplant, capers, and tomatoes -- in lieu of butter or the now ubiquitous olive oil.

From a list of eight appetizers we chose three, passing over more eggplant (topped with roasted peppers and mozzarella), a caesar salad, steamed mussels, and the carpaccio of the day. The best of our selections was mozzarella en carozza, which featured four triangles of cheese coated with bread crumbs and dropped in the deep fryer ($5.95). Crisp-jacketed cheese oozed appropriately under a sweet red-pepper cream sauce heightened with a touch of anchovies.

Fried calamari didn't fare as well. Though the portion was generous -- rings of body meat and legs atumble on the plate -- the squid was tough and chewy. The crackling batter wasn't at all greasy but had an unappealing, stale flavor; a small dish of acidic marinara sauce was too chunky for easy dipping.

Rich and earthy, portobello Venezia were stuffed mushrooms topped with prosciutto and Provolone ($6.95). Though the mushrooms exuded juice, a red wine sauce didn't pull enough punch, and would have been well served by the spark of balsamic vinegar or some other sharpening agent. Thin-sliced prosciutto also lacked presence in the stuffing, overwhelmed as it was by the thick layer of Provolone.

Entrees purportedly come with soup or salad, but we were never given the choice: tricolore house salads appeared automatically. The snappy blend of lettuces -- radicchio, romaine, and curly endive -- was presented at room temperature, topped with a tomato concasse and a sprinkle of olive oil dressing. Once again, more vinegar would have provided balance, though a grind of fresh black pepper helped.

Main courses were by far the most disappointing aspect of the meal. A variety of pasta is offered; customers choose first whether to have spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine, capellini, penne, fusilli, tortellini, or gnocchi. (Lasagna, crespelles -- noodle crepes -- and risotto appear separately.) Then the selection turns to the fifteen sauces, ranging from simple pomodoro and bolognese to more complex carbonara and quattro formaggi (four cheeses). All sounded inviting. The dishes are priced at $9.95, unless one requests clam or mussel sauce, which costs a dollar more.

We drafted two combinations from this list. The first, fusilli Angelina, was mixed with chunks of fresh plum tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, arugula, garlic, and olive oil. Despite the obvious spike of the garlic, the dish was bland and unassertive, the arugula overwhelmed by oil and tasting more like spinach. Worse, the twisting lengths of fusilli were so limp that we were surprised the curls hadn't straightened out.

Mushiness also plagued tortellini Siciliana. A pile of cheese tortellini was draped with eggplant and marinara sauce, then drizzled with melted mozzarella. Not only was the stuffed pasta unbearably soft, but the eggplant had been cooked to disintegration. For ardent admirers of tortellini, this dish was a disaster.

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