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'Tis the Seasoning
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While waiting for our table, my guests and I glanced around at the racks of wine, the gleaming deli cases displaying imported meats and cheeses, the shelves of pastries scenting the market portion of Perricone's Marketplace & Cafe. "This place looks just like Stephan's," Martin, one of my friends, remarked, referring to the gourmet Italian market and 22-seat cafe on South Beach.
"Oh, it's the same owner -- Steven Perricone," our host said as he led us to a table. "Enjoy your meal."
15 SE 10th St.
Miami, FL 33131
"Not bloody likely," Martin muttered. He looked at me accusingly. "You've brought us to a front. Aren't these the people that got caught running drugs and dodging taxes?"
It's times like these that my dubious reputation as a font of local restaurant lore actually comes in handy, and I was able to correct him. Martin was thinking of the Key Biscayne restaurant Stefano's, whose owner Stefano Brandino (who also owned Sunday's on the Beach of Key Biscayne and Salty's in Haulover, among other establishments) had his eateries seized by the U.S. Marshals Service a few years ago. But he wasn't running drugs; he pleaded guilty last fall to tax fraud and admitted that he'd known when he agreed to sell his restaurants that the buyers wanted them for money-laundering purposes.
Still, my friend wasn't completely off the map in pairing Perricone with Brandino. Brandino sued Perricone for naming his South Beach market Stefano's; after more than a year of legal wrangling, Perricone gave in and renamed his shop. And the two have something else in common: Both have aspired to build restaurant empires.
Perricone opened Manhattan Cafe, a 40-seat lunchery that caters to the downtown business crowd, in 1994. After selling Stephan's the following year, he debuted Giovanna Cafe, a slightly larger downtown lunch establishment. And then last October came his biggest venture yet, Perricone's, a 100-seat cafe on SE Tenth Street that offers three gratifyingly inexpensive meals a day, plus an attached marketplace that provides take-out fare, wine, desserts, and noshes, as well as a catering service.
The tables at Perricone's are split between indoors and outdoors, but unless you prefer air-conditioning to the real thing, it doesn't really matter where you sit -- the interior of the restaurant, with its slatted chairs, flowered tablecloths, and beams of wood has an outdoorsy feel to it, as if you're dining on the deck of the ship. The small menu is supplemented by two or three daily pasta specials and an equal number of entree specials. We tried the soup of the day, a briny bowl of stracciatella (the kitchen had run out of our first choice, minestrone). A chicken broth was dense with spinach and beaten egg -- not at all like the swirling egg-drop soup our waiter described, but a grainier, countrified version, bits of rich egg clinging to the clustered greens like snow to eyelashes. The soup's only real flaw was the bouillonlike stock, far too concentrated and salty for the ingredients whose flavors it masked.
We stuck with the printed list for the rest of our appetizers, enjoying a cold antipasto platter comprising three slices each of lean prosciutto, slightly fattier cappicola (another type of ham), and garlicky hard salami, all of good quality. Two balls of fresh white cheese, deemed mozzarella by our waiter but tasting more like provolone, were surrounded by pitted kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, and sliced fresh tomatoes. This was a hearty appetizer, graced by the complimentary fresh bread and garlic-infused olive oil served at the start of the meal.
A plate of mussels, while not as generous, was equally cold. Six small mollusks afloat in a pesto and white wine sauce were aromatic and herb-flecked, and their springy texture spoke of good seafood cookery. A lighter hand with the salt in the kitchen and a quicker hand with the dish to the table would have helped immensely.
A combination plate of fried calamari and zucchini was a disappointment in terms of the vegetable, hardly any of which was sprinkled amid the squid. The majority of the dish consisted of clusters of squid legs, which kicked up from the plate like mutant Rockettes. I happen to like this part of the squid, especially when they're tender and encased in a grease-free batter as these were, but most customers prefer the soft fleshy rings of body meat. Worst of all, this dish was also cold, a situation that a bowl of marinara sauce, spicy but lukewarm, could do little to ameliorate.
Matters improved with the main courses, though the salt problem persisted. An entree of veal saltimbocca ("jump in the mouth") almost seemed as if it were named after the dish's dominant ingredient. The tender scallops of veal, smothered in a Marsala-color sauce, proved after a few bites to be too dehydrating to eat. Notes of sage and white wine were lost, and prosciutto cotto, the boiled ham that traditionally dresses the veal cutlets before they are browned, was entirely absent. (Of course, had the prosciutto been present, the dish's sodium content probably would have knocked off a hypertensive diner faster than a surfeit of pork rinds.)