By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
I'm afraid the same may be true of some local diners who have grown accustomed to the many cheap Italian joints serving boxed pasta for a few bucks. They just may not get this exceptional new restaurant that opened in late July in a spot once occupied by the legendary Mark's Place (and for a brief stint, Rugantino's). Then again, people may not know about it yet.
Located in a nondescript North Miami strip mall, the space is little changed since its glory days as the epicenter of South Florida's dining universe. The flat, low ceilings, pinpoint lights, and boxy angles evoke the same early '90s feel, which might be described as postdisco suburban chic. The interior is not what one would call cozy, but the addition of serious, straight-back wooden chairs and plain white tablecloths lends a more subdued tone to what was once very Boca. A semi-open kitchen along one wall lends a bit of warmth and a sumptuous aroma to the air. Unfortunately the arc of a bar in the center of the restaurant emits its own odors -- of cigarette smoke. In this case the hokey but romantic strains of Dean Martin singing Italian hits make a perfect soundtrack.
2286 NE 123rd St, North Miami; 305-893-9676. Open Monday through Sunday 5:00 p.m. to midnight.
Somehow, with seating for about 120 people, the restaurant manages to seem somewhat intimate even when nearly empty. Which it was on a recent visit. In fact as we arrived just after 9:00 on a Thursday night, we were greeted by a pleasant valet who, after parking our car, returned the keys explaining that he was leaving for the night. Not a problem since the car was parked only steps from the entrance. Once inside we were welcomed by a beautiful dark-haired hostess and an affable manager who gave us a choice of essentially any seat in the house. Besides a table of about a dozen, we were the only other patrons in the restaurant.
An older man, probably Mario Fazio, the Washington, D.C., restaurateur who opened Toscana 2000, welcomed us, and handed us over to an able pair of veteran waiters who took impeccable care of our needs throughout the night.
We chose from a tempting array of classic appetizers, mostly from Italy's northern and central regions, including baked eggplant, beef carpaccio with Parmesan cheese, seafood salad in lemon dressing, polenta with sautéed wild mushrooms, snails Piemontese in Barolo wine, and Ligurian-style mussels.
While studying the rest of the simple but elegant menu we sampled the eggplant parmigiana ($7), a casserole of thin fillets layered with good-quality mozzarella and just a hint of fresh and tangy tomato sauce. It was served in a shallow chafing dish as big around as my open hand and baked just long enough so that the cheese turned a golden brown and the delicate flavors melded. It sliced as neatly as a French gallete, leaving not a trace of oil behind. To balance it we chose a simple green salad, which was dressed ever so lightly in an olive oil dressing that brought out the flavors of the very fresh and crisp greens, a generic mix of baby mesclun.
We had a tough time deciding between a dozen handmade pastas such as fettuccine Alfredo, pappardelle with wild hare, ravioli stuffed with porcini mushrooms, linguini with crabmeat, pennette alla vodka, and gnocchi. Plus, several types of risotto, including one with black truffles, didn't make the choice any easier.
We settled on the pappardelle ($13). To our surprise even a half-portion of the luscious wide noodles was more than enough for the two of us. The nearly see-through sheaves were coated in a rich, almost sticky, tomato-based sauce with just a bit of sweet wine to bring out the earthy taste of the wild hare.
We could have stopped there, but from more than a dozen seafood entrées I chose a fillet of sole dredged in a gauze-thin flour-and-egg coating and then sautéed with lemon, tarragon, and capers ($17). The moist, white fish was utterly delicate, the flavor subtly sweet. And the portion was huge. The slender and delicious fillet nearly plunged over the edges of my dinner plate. My husband's lamb, seasoned with a hearty blend of herbs, including rosemary and thyme ($19), was equally good. Both dishes were garnished with slices of steamed, peeled potatoes and sugar snap peas accented with bright red slivers of wilted peppers.
To finish we sampled the ricotta cheesecake ($5), a dense and flavorful wedge with a flaky crust and a few tiny chunks of candied fruit. Heavenly with a pair of frothy cappuccinos.
We planned another visit, but found the restaurant closed on a Monday evening, though a phone call two days earlier assured us they were open nightly.
When we passed by another time on our way to a nearby eatery, we found it just as empty as our first time. Perhaps, come season, it will get more popular. After all, even if it never won a wide audience, Big Night did pick up a few big awards, including best screenwriting at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival.