Readers Digest

As I inched my way toward my master's degree in poetry at the University of California in Irvine, I took solace in one thing: After every brutal workshop in which we deconstructed each other's work until at least one of us cried in the bathroom and the rest vowed never to pick up a pen again, we'd go out together for dinner. Nothing soothes hurt feelings or glues shredded ambition back together faster than a good meal and a few glasses of good wine. And each week we sought out a new place to eat, to gather around a different kind of roundtable, as friends rather than as (adversarial) poets. Irvine, the planned heart of a built-up Orange County, was no dining mecca, and we were limited to those eateries to which we could walk from the bridge that connected the campus with a large strip shopping center. We did manage to find several restaurants there that offered a great deal more than the basic collegiate burger and beer.

I looked forward to continuing this tradition when I went back to grad school at the University of Miami (this time for a degree in fiction writing). Once again I found the workshop process -- learning more about what you're doing wrong than what you're doing right -- a tad tough on the ego, though not nearly as painful as what we endured behind the Orange Curtain. But this time the area conspired against me: The campus is somewhat isolated from full-service restaurants. Within-range choices appeared limited to JJ's American Diner (now Koo Koo Roo), and LB's Eatery (which has stood empty for more than a year). The Mexican restaurant Chilango's eventually moved in around the Sunset Drive area, which also contains the delicious Middle Eastern El Manara, but we still felt stifled. More often than not we wound up at the university's Rathskeller, where the sandwiches are served in red plastic baskets and the all-student waitstaff thinks white zinfandel counts as white wine. And where, consequently, not many of us healed from our ongoing battle over what constitutes good writing.

We could have used a restaurant like Trattoria Sole. Opened two months ago at the corner of Sunset Drive and South Dixie Highway by brothers Maurizio and Massamiliano Farinelli (the latter is also the chef) and their partner Augustin Sanchez, Sole is just the sort of upscale-enough northern Italian eatery this little boutique area has always lacked. Though the chef is only 25 and has scant past experience in the kitchen (Maurizio is 36, Sanchez 35), the restaurant already displays the qualities of good literature -- a sparkling synthesis of content and form -- not to mention really scintillating prices. All it needs now is a little careful workshopping of the gentlest kind.

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Trattoria Sole

5894 Sunset Drive
South Miami, FL 33143

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: Coral Gables/South Miami

Take for example the reservations process. Though the trattoria takes bookings over the phone, no one seems to write them down: The host had never heard of our party. Fortunately we were given the last of the 50 seats in this high-ceilinged dining room that's sponge-painted gold; a line soon extended out the door, and business remained a bombardment throughout the evening.

Ten years ago an appetizer list like Trattoria Sole's -- caesar salad, bruschetta, two kinds of carpaccio (beef and salmon) -- might have been considered bright, fresh Italian, at least here in the States. Now it seems somewhat stock. Still, carpaccio di bue was delightful, a plate of lacy tenderloin layered around a centerpiece of chopped arugula. Flakes of Parmesan cheese and slices of white mushrooms gave the delicate meat some texture, and a lemon garnish, though oddly carved, contributed citrusy bite. A tableside pouring of fragrant olive oil and a grind or two of refreshing cracked pepper capped the dish.

Olive oil and pepper were also last-minute additions to a tasty if traditional antipasto misto, a cold combination for two. Slices of fresh, moist mozzarella, chunks of grana, and imported prosciutto as exceptional as the carpaccio were the mainstays of the platter, with a sprinkle of sliced black olives and a pile of roasted red peppers marinated in balsamic vinegar providing flair, an attribute decidedly lacking in two pieces of pesto crostini.

The selection of hot appetizers -- three in total: fried mozzarella, a combination of fried zucchini and calamari, and grilled vegetables with goat cheese -- was so limited that instead we asked to share some ravioli di ricotta e spinaci from the pasta list (which contains a whopping ten selections, including two risottos). Stuffed with ricotta and vibrant chopped spinach, these homemade dumplings were delicious. The menu indicates that this dish can be served with a butter-sage or a tomato-basil sauce. No one bothered to ask which we preferred; ours arrived with the latter, chunks of plum tomatoes shot through with shreds of minty basil. As a main course we ordered another pasta dish, paglia e fieno ai funghi, which translates as "straw and hay" with mushrooms. Springy homemade green and white fettuccine was irresistible, and musky with sauteed mushrooms. A bath of olive oil and garlic rendered the dish fragrant, more like a field of meadow grass than the bale of horse fodder the name implies.

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