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Little Italian Tavern used to be housed in front of a Hallandale trailer park, and was critically and popularly acclaimed for solid, home-cooked Italian fare, friendly service, and low, low prices. Ten months ago owners Juan and Diana Rubin transferred Tavern to North Miami Beach, in the space occupied many years by the Italian restaurant Tivoli. By moving from trailer/diner to staid strip-mall eatery, the Tavern has lost its uniquely cozy ambiance, but the new 72-seater is clean and comfortable, and exudes the proper aura for a neighborhood red-sauce joint -- bottles of wine on the tables, framed Italian food and beverage posters on the walls, and one of those old-fashioned, white plaster-of-Paris statuettes in the center of the room. For the sake of making the restaurant feel even more like a little Italian tavern, they might consider dimming the lights, and replacing generic Latin music with Sinatra and Bennett -- or at least Frankie Valli.
LThe menu and prices remain intact. You may be tempted to start out by sharing one of three pizzas, but resist the urge -- our margherita pie ($6.95) was stiff and bland. Better to begin with crisply fried calamari ($3.75), or a fresh and bountiful house salad ($3.50).
For main course, most diners seem to delight in the house specialty of spaghettini with one of "21 sauces." The plate of pasta is $4.95, plus a small surcharge for whatever you choose to get it tossed with -- one dollar for marinara or arrabiata; $2.75 for pesto; $2.95 for sausage and peppers, primavera, or chicken with mushrooms in cream sauce; and $3.50 for clams, calamari, or shrimp. Any way you add it up it's a deal, even if you have to throw in an extra buck for substituting a different pasta -- which you very well might want to do, as certain combos, such as spaghettini Alfredo, just don't make it. The cuts we tried (penne, fettuccine, rigatoni) were consistently cooked to the right bite, and sauces, excepting a too heavy-handedly garlicked marinara accompanying succulent veal meatballs, were likewise on the money.
Daily specials hover around the $10 range, and include standards like spinach-and-ricotta-filled cannelloni, chicken breast stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto, and veal treatments such as piccata, parmigiana, and marsala, the last large and tender with sauce subtly evoking the smoky-sweet wine. More exotic picks stick out among the specials as well -- on any given night it could be polenta with rabbit cacciatore, beef braised with endives and leeks, or duck roasted with rosemary and garlic. We tried lobster cannelloni that didn't contain much crustacean, but the crêpes were soft, the couscous filling fulfilling, and the sauce imbued with buttery shellfish flavor.
Tiramisu and cannoli, the sole desserts, aren't worth hanging around for. The wine list doesn't inspire much either, but good deals abound, and finicky vinophiles who wish to bring their own bottle need only pay a $7 corkage fee. Quibbles aside, Broward's loss is Dade's gain, and Little Italian Tavern remains well worth your while for laudable, affordable Italian cuisine.