Din and Dinner

I remember standing in front of an open refrigerator, scanning the packed contents and yelling, "Mom, there's nothing to eat in here!"

"What are you talking about?" my mother invariably replied. "I just went shopping."

It wasn't that there was no food, of course. Just no appealing food. Nothing interesting. Nothing I hadn't eaten a hundred times before.

Frustrated, I'd settle for something familiar, something like eggs. Something that wouldn't do much for my palate but would allow me to close the refrigerator door and spare me a lecture on wasting electricity.

I recall this feeling so vividly not because my own refrigerator bores the heck out of me (it does), but because it returns every time I go out to eat in Coconut Grove. If the Grove were a fridge, I'd have burned out the light by now. Sure, there are plenty of restaurants. But there's nothing to eat.

Just as I enjoy the occasional stroll down Ocean Drive, I like to walk around the Grove once in a while. Yeah, the place could take out a patent on tawdry, but it's also vibrant. And energetic (if loud and overcrowded). Teeming with life (albeit very young life -- as in adolescent). The trouble is that the restaurant scene -- Virtua Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Sticky Fingers, et cetera -- now reflects that same party mood, and very little else.

Still, I occasionally manage to convince myself it'll be different. I go to the Grove with a bunch of friends, thinking, who knows, maybe we'll stumble across that great little restaurant, that symbol of bygone days when you went to a restaurant in the Grove and got actual food, not a theme. And after walking around and around, I usually end up at the one eatery in the area that has stood the test of time and tourists: PauloLuigi's.

A homey Italian spot known for its red-and-white tablecloths, extensive porch seating, and dim wood-paneled interior decorated with photos of employees' children, for the past twelve years PauloLuigi's has been a local standby for pizza, pasta, and good meat and poultry dishes that are generally reliable, if familiar as ... well, familiar as eggs. But while this place doesn't pretend to attract movie stars, it does appeal to a certain celebrity circle: Sports Illustrated recently named the restaurant a favorite destination of NBA players. And the eatery, which also caters the flights of visiting professional baseball, basketball, and hockey teams, maintains an illusion worthy of Planet Hollywood -- PauloLuigi is actually proprietor Paul Shalaj, a chef of Albanian descent who lived in southern Italy before opening his pseudo-namesake in 1985.

I did see some extraordinarily tall individuals the night I last visited, but to tell the truth, I was more interested in the rolls dripping garlic than in any out-of-state ball-dribblers. The crusty rolls (the first batch is free; you can order an additional half-dozen for two bucks) were potent with the garlic and grated Parmesan cheese, though the tops were disappointingly burned. On the other hand, the kitchen erred on the side of caution with an underdone pizza "Principessa" topped with grilled eggplant, asparagus, mozzarella, and oregano. The pizza was soggy in the middle and too skimpy on the tomato sauce, and it could have done without the baby eggplant, which was bitter. The pencil-thin asparagus, though, did add crisp flair to the melted mozzarella.

Another starter, sauteed calamari, showed the kitchen's better side. A plenitude of squid rings and legs was a little tough but tasty nonetheless, doused with a wonderful tomato sauce that was garlicky and aromatic with seafood essence. The squid is also available deep-fried or breaded and broiled (the latter, the menu warns, takes twenty minutes to prepare). We also thoroughly enjoyed a garlic-hearty pasta fagioli, though the soup was very thick and the white beans and soft noodles were beginning to disintegrate, a sign that it had been cooked for a very long time.

A choice of caesar or house salad comes with entrees, but we ordered an insalata caprichos, for its garnishes: artichoke hearts, briny black olives, pimientos, and rolled-up slices of coppacola (spicy ham), salami, and provolone cheese, all perched on a feathery bed of romaine. The fresh, crisp lettuce had been tossed with a tasty dijon vinaigrette. The caesar too featured a lovely dressing, with prominent notes of garlic and Parmesan, while the house salad, a combination of romaine, grated carrot, and sliced red onion, was served with a homemade creamy Italian dressing sharp with vinegar alongside.

Carbo loaders must think PauloLuigi's is nirvana -- the restaurant offers 30 such dishes to choose from. The variety of the pastas makes it hard for a starch lover like me to select dinner, but I found a food-group compromise with a simple preparation of spaghetti and meatballs. The long noodles were blanketed with a smooth and rich gravy, just the way I like it, but I wasn't impressed with the two meatballs, which had too-large chunks of garlic in them and were sodden with breadcrumbs.

A more inventive pasta, rigatti boscaiole, was a point of confusion. Rigatti, which are large rigatoni, are translated on the menu as tortelloni. In some parts of Italy, tortelloni does mean square rather than stuffed noodles, but most Americans aren't privy to that fact. My guest was twice surprised when she next discovered Italian sausage in her dish, which hadn't been in the description either. We quickly realized that while the noodles were correct, the dish wasn't what she had ordered, and we sent it back. The replacement entree, a vegetarian combination including peas, portobello mushrooms, artichokes, and asparagus, came steaming to the table pleasant and light but unevenly cooked, with some of the rigatti al dente and the rest mushy.

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