All My Bambinos

Pastas made us even happier. Giuffrida rolls, twists, and cuts his own, stuffing ravioli with mushrooms and spinach, coloring fettuccine with ink he drains from squid, which he then throws away. ("Everyone does fried calamari," he says.) A creation such as gnocchi di ricotta certainly distinguishes him from his neighbors. Perfect for sharing as an appetizer, these little hand-rolled nuggets were balls of fluff. A slow-cooked veal ragu sauce was smooth and hearty, its meatiness lightened by bits of lemon zest. Fresh Italian feta cheese, creamier and nuttier than the Greek version, was diced over the top.

Fish lasagna was another of the chef's tasty inventions. Between sheets of homemade noodles, flaky white sole had been poached in a white wine broth flavored with shallots, onion, ginger, and lemon zest. Shrimp were cooked in their shells, peeled, and chopped before being added to the casserole; the shrimp water was then used to formulate the lasagna's bechamel sauce. Fragrant Parmesan cheese toasted the top.

Fish without the cholesterol was available in the form of whole "Key West" snapper, baked and served in the same skillet after having been filleted tableside. The sweet, mild flesh was then doused with an aromatic sauce comprising olive oil, fresh oregano, and lemon, and accompanied by the vegetables of the day -- in this case a failed sweet-and-sour ratatouille, which was oily and bitter.

Other main courses cover all the carnivorous bases, highlighting both stewed shank and grilled rack of lamb and stewed shank and grilled chop of veal. Though a little underdone, beef tenderloin was an incredible bargain, a huge chunk of meat for nineteen dollars. Cut in half, this portion would have produced two inches-thick filets. The tender meat was coated with a Barolo wine demiglace in which juicy mushrooms were floating, gravy that also graced a side portion of garlicky mashed potatoes. Hearty stuff.

Four grilled jumbo shrimp were also portioned for the bigger appetite. But this concoction was truly bizarre, and I'm not sure I'd essay it again. The shrimp were perfectly cooked, supple as lobster. But the shizaky sauce that covered them was jarring, too Asian for the atmosphere. Alfalfa sprouts draping the plate also seemed misguided, a California health-food accent. And the companion ratatouille was no better here. We laughed at the tongue-in-cheek design, however. The sight of four wood-staked prawns stuck in a lemon base and dripping sprouts like mantillas was almost worth the eighteen-dollar price of the experiment.

Like the fare, service at Matteo & Alfredo was inventive. The Jim Carrey of the food industry, our waiter liked to play tricks, bringing out an occasional kitchen tool with the food (slotted spoons with espresso cups, for example) instead of the customary utensil. His teasing did interfere once with service A the rather fluorescent raspberry-basil cheesecake, which he flung dramatically off the dessert tray when we expressed interest. The cake itself tasted a little sour and melted, as if it had been sitting there all evening; a bittersweet chocolate torte was better, though also a bit too warm. But for the most part, the server's intentional clowning was well meant, and on our parts, well met.

So well met, in fact, that I think Oggi, Prima Pasta, and Ragazzi should take the hint and lighten up. I have eaten in all these restaurants and enjoyed them for their similarities as well as their differences. And I admire the generals in this ridiculous skirmish, who learned their trade as foot soldiers at the same few Italian restaurants -- Caffes Baci and Abbracci in the Gables, and the infamous Buccione in Coconut Grove -- working their way up from waiters. Cea puts it best: None of these guys was "born with a restaurant, like Joe's Stone Crab."

But I am not a fan of pettiness, and I refuse to referee it. Every restaurateur's dream is to turn away customers, and these guys -- men who have been family, friends, and co-workers -- are fighting about it. I'll take my cue from Italian restaurant fixture Paolo Retani, partner at Caffe Da Vinci and the only player in this tiny drama about whom no one has a bad thing to say. Call him Switzerland on this stormy Italian front. I last saw Retani not running the front at Da Vinci but delightedly munching away at Matteo & Alfredo, and judging by the look of pleasure on his face, it wasn't just to check out the competition.

And as for Cea, I'd be careful about invoking the name of Holy Joe's if I were him. Stone crab claws pinch a heck of a lot sharper than pasta.

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