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Casa Rolo's Café has the distinction of being one of Thomas Kramer's first victims. This was back in 1997, when the über-developer with a penchant for disorderly conduct was in the process of reconstructing the low-rise, low-rent tip of South Beach. Rolo's had been around since 1986, and I had considered the decidedly hip spot one of my favorite places to eat.
It looked like a luncheonette and served affordable Argentine food along with an astounding 450 types of beer -- a wide enough selection of suds to more than satisfy the crowd of surfers who'd jam into the cozy space after riding waves across the way (the restaurant was situated on Ocean Drive and First Street). As the area became a high-rise, high-rent proposition, Rolo's and other small family-run businesses were forced to leave.
The café resurfaced a year ago, this time in yet another about-to-be-revitalized community, Biscayne Boulevard and 22nd Street. The new digs are lusher than before -- it's actually a house, the individual rooms warmly decorated Mediterranean-style (Atilio "Rolo" Rodriguez hails from the Canary Islands). Seating capacity remains about the same at 31, but the beer choices have been drastically cut to a half-dozen bottles and the same number of drafts; the former plenitude of international brews is now a collection of bottles categorized by country and displayed on shelves lining the restaurant.
The food has undergone only a slightly less dramatic modification, with rice, beans, and plantains having been replaced by the most basic Italian fare. Choice of starters, for instance, is confined to shrimp scampi, mussels or fried mozzarella with marinara sauce, mozzarella with tomatoes and basil, and fried calamari. Actually the spicily battered squid, with jalapeño-spiked red sauce, evokes Rolo's old Argentine slant. Meat dishes are likewise prepared in a more enthusiastically spiced Latin than simple Italian manner, my grilled skirt steak virtually teetering on the edge of overseasoning. If you shy away from salt, inform the waiter when ordering -- foods are freshly cooked, so the chef will be able to accommodate any such requests.
You won't want to change a thing about the toothsome, homemade pastas, except perhaps to wish that a couple were sauced in less predictable fashion. Spaghetti gets matched with puttanesca, fettuccine comes alfredo or pomodoro-style, lobster ravioli with pink sauce, and cheese ravioli with bright-red tomato sauce. This last pasta was paired with a thick, juicy, herb-imbued chicken breast as a special one night; like all dinners, it was preceded by a crisp caesar salad (disappointingly devoid of anchovies). The cost was $13.95, which fits into the moderately priced scheme of things: Pasta, meat, and seafood entrées range from $10.95-$15.95.
Rolo's rolls busily along at lunchtime, an Americanized sandwich selection (grilled chicken breast, chili dog, tuna sandwich, and burger with fries) offered with an abbreviated and slightly lower-priced version of the dinner menu. Business has been lagging at night, but a teachers-union building is being constructed across the street, and the rest of the surrounding blocks are slowly beginning to bulk up with shops. Rolo's is readying itself for the transition: a piano is being brought in for live music (which will include jazz); a more danceable, wooden floor will replace the current carpeting in the center dining room; and, perhaps most significant, a pizza oven is going to be installed. This time, as the neighborhood around it gentrifies, Casa Rolo's Café stands to be positioned for profit, not eviction.