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
The thing is, the more simple, the more difficult it is," Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan once said, in regards to preparing food. "When you do a dish and you do two things, and one of them is wrong...." She didn't need to finish the sentence. Italian cooking is about letting the natural flavors of a few ingredients speak for themselves. Soya & Pomodoro, an informal, mostly outdoor Italian eatery downtown, and Con Tutto Pizza A La Pala & Grill, an informal, mostly outdoor Italian/Uruguayan eatery on Calle Ocho, both ascribe to the fundamental fare of which Ms. Hazan speaks. This pair of fun and funky establishments are extemely atmospheric, too. And easy on the wallet.
"Simple food made with love" is Soya & Pomodoro's motto, and the very first bites of melanzane alla parmigiana convinced us of that sentiment's sincerity. A wisp of the cleanly fried eggplant, sprightly sauced and cheesed, was so lightly delicate as to taste weightless. More uncontrived pleasures followed: ravioli pillows of minced porcini mushrooms and ricotta cheese, sauced with basic pomodoro; fresh crêpes (camilloni) rolled with spinach and ricotta, topped with pomodoro and bechamel; and bistecca con peperoni e capperi, a juicy, pan-seared sirloin steak sided by roasted red peppers, capers, and garlic, and served with roasted potatoes.
Lasagna, the only missed note, brought to bear Ms. Hazan's warning about the difficulty of simplicity. Wavy noodles were cooked just right, but there wasn't enough cheese to balance the beefy bolognese sauce, which dominated to the point of making the dish seem like a sloppy joe on pasta.
Con Tutto Pizza A La Pala & Grill, 1380 SW 8th St., Miami; 305-858-0255. Open Tuesday through Thursday 2:00 to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 2:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., and Sunday 2:00 to 11:00 p.m.
As good as the food here is and it is very good Soya & Pomodoro is one of those rare restaurants where ambiance makes everything taste even better. The main, indoor room has just three tables, a counter, and a ventanita that steamed espressos get slapped down upon. But the ambiance is to be found in the partially open-air dining area next door, the former lobby of the Lincoln Bank. The space is still defined by that property's arched, wrought-iron entrance and tattered yellow walls that exude a palpable sense of ruin with some imagination, you might think you're in an underground subway station from the original Planet of the Apes set. Except this description doesn't quite do the place justice, as there exists an earnest, unpretentious beauty to Soya, like some strangely seductive and rustic trattoria you might accidentally stumble upon on an ancient, cobblestoned side street of Venice.
Or Pompeii, which is where owner Armando Alfano, something of a Frank Zappa lookalike, is from. When he opened the restaurant two years ago with his Thai wife, the menu contained more health-oriented foods, but sales of such indicated that the downtown clientele wasn't ready. Armando runs the business on his own now, and the "soya" element is limited to a soy burger among the sandwich selections. All lunches come with a basket of bread (regular and whole wheat baguettes), and a house salad of crisp greens, shredded carrots, and red onion. Everything costs less than $10 (excepting salmon and steaks, which top out at $11), prices kept down by skimping on portions rather than quality.
Eminently drinkable wines are similarly affordable ($4 per glass, $24 to $46 per bottle), homemade tiramisu is wondrously soft, and service is amiable and attentive. The lone gripe about Soya & Pomodoro is that it's mainly a breakfast and lunch place, open for dinner on Thursday nights only. Do yourself a favor and make it here on that evening, when local musicians play their instruments and, as Armando aptly puts it, "a Buena Vista type of thing" goes on. The scene is, in fact, a bohemian rhapsody rousing our moribund downtown from its slumber until well past midnight.
Con Tutto puts on a lively display every night. The indoor dining room is small and ramshackle like Soya, it boasts a ventanita, and, like Soya, you'll probably prefer eating outdoors. The alfresco setting is an alluring alleyway with logs of wood leaning along one brick wall, and a blazing brick furnace/parilla on the opposite side. Sitting out here during summertime could conceivably become hot as hell, but what a heavenly spot to dine on a cool or even temperate Miami evening. Heavenly, that is, if you order properly and/or get lucky.
Things started well with warm, crusty flautas, Uruguayans' daily, baguettelike bread. Exemplary empanadas followed, the dough pale and fresh, the fillings a choice of spinach, minced beef, moistly sauced chicken, or, my favorite, thick hunks of ham with a slice of cheese and a heavy dose of oregano. An eighteen-inch pizza, delivered spread over two plates, was sensational, and alone worth coming here for. The thick crust, charred and smeared with a gossamer of tomato sauce, forms a plush, luscious foundation for bubbling cheese, thin tomato slices, black olives, garlic, and oregano.
Chivitos were splendid as well, each mile-high Uruguayan sandwich piled with a flimsy minute steak, ham, cheese, fried egg, pimientos, olives, mayo, Russian salad, and french fries a heart attack hoagie, if you will, but delicious. Take some of that chivito home in a doggie bag if you must, but save room for rich desserts such as creamy flan with dulce de leche piped on top, or the irresistible chaja, a delightful dome of poached meringue over a mound of whipped cream, peaches, sponge cake, and dulce de leche.