Something Old, Something Noodle

One year, when my parents claimed to be too tired to go out on their anniversary and consume a four-star meal, my sister and I decided to supply it for them in the comfort of their own dining room. We could be as elegant as any restaurant, we told each other. So we issued invitations to Casa Karetnick, printed up place cards and a menu, and set the table with my mother's linen, crystal, and china.

My memory tells me my sister was twelve and I was ten, but we were probably a little older than that, given the level of difficulty of the recipe we chose from my mother's copy of Larousse Gastronomique -- a whole capon, stuffed with its own wine-sauteed liver, then baked in a gigantic domed pastry shell. The trick to a successful dish, we read, was in boning and skinning the breast-heavy chicken before wrapping it in the buttery dough. If we left the bones in, the cookbook warned, the heat would cause the legs to kick through the crust, screwing up the cooking time and ruining the presentation.

Ruination, of course, was not in our plans, so we followed the recipe to the letter. We divided the tasks according to age and experience: My sister handled the liver concoction and delicate pastry, and I got stuck with the bird. Though the instructions were relatively easy to interpret, I spent hours jimmying the bones free from the flesh without leaving visible scars of dissection. This may explain why it was that, with floral-print dish towels folded over our arms, we eventually served my poor starving parents their anniversary dinner close to midnight.

What stands out most clearly to me about that meal was picking at the remains behind the scenes, impressed for the first time by a culinary accomplishment (time managementwise, the dinner wasn't a success, but the food sure was good). My sister, meanwhile, recalls the labor-intensive dinner party that earned us cooking duty at every family gathering thereafter. And my parents remember doing the sinkful of dishes afterward, their napping daughters pillowed on the kitchen table.

I was reminded of this experience while dining at Bocca di Rosa, the five-month-old Italian restaurant located in the former Buccione space in Coconut Grove. Precocious and imaginative, Bocca di Rosa is Casa Karetnick in reverse -- a sophisticated dining room with pretensions to hominess.

Situated on Bird Road just out of tourists' reach, Bocca di Rosa depends on Grove and Gables locals and therefore thinks of itself as a neighborhood restaurant. In some aspects, it is. Consider: Customers seem to know both the staff and one another; the dishwasher, having shown artistic aptitude, was promoted to plate decorator for desserts; and the menu exhorts diners to "line up your food stamps" for a particularly expensive item and recommends that if one should order the dish called "devil's chicken" one should be prepared to eat it with one's hands.

But consider also that the particularly expensive item is an appetizer assortment of Scottish salmon, Beluga caviar, and smoked rainbow trout entitled antipasto Marxista/Leninista, and that the devil's chicken ain't exactly a chicken: We're talking a semiboned Cornish hen, pressed and marinated in rosemary, black pepper, red chili flakes, and olive oil. At these not-quite-neighborhood prices, which range up to the midtwenties for an entree, neither diner nor restaurateur can afford to fail. And while a sense of humor might be handy but not absolutely essential to eat here, deep pockets are. So if you're that kind of local, then you really will feel right at home at Bocca di Rosa. (By the way, the hen was the only dish we didn't like. A singed, spread-eagled bird, it was moist and juicy but tasted burnt; the sauteed eggplant-and-tomato side dish that accompanied it, though, was delicious.)

Owners Peter Bortolatti and Judith Leon, along with chef-partner Giorgio Baldari, named Bocca di Rosa, which means "mouth of the rose," after a prostitute who figures as the protagonist in an Italian ballad written by one of Bortolatti's friends. Apparently this courtesan makes love for the, well, love of it, rather than for money. To my mind this makes her pretty unsuccessful, but Bortolatti means to equate his vocation with hers in that both have a passion for their work.

His passion shows in several ways. First, he converted the old Buccione, a falling-down space he wanted despite its having been, as he says, "possessed by evil" -- an apt description for a restaurant whose owner allegedly murdered a tax collector awhile ago, though Bortolatti is referring to the tasteless decor. He and Leon redid the entire 80-seat restaurant, painting the walls green and taupe, installing marble and light woods, and adding stained-glass windows for a colorful finishing touch.

Service is another arena where the restaurant shines. The staff opens doors for you, fusses over the tablecloths (a crease in ours prompted our host to insist we move to another table), and delivers bread, water, wine, and dinner with skilled aplomb. Though it should be the norm, polite and attentive service is still a novelty in South Florida, which is perhaps one reason the room seemed to be filled with regulars the night I dined.

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