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João "Juca" Oliveira was 17 years old when he arrived in America from his hometown of Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Right away, he began cooking at a conveyor belt of Bice restaurants — from New York to D.C. to Palm Beach. In the early '90s, he cut his teeth at Il Tre Merli and Folia, at the time two trendy South Beach trattorias. When he debuted his own Tutto Pasta in 1994, locals flocked to the Coral Way locale for fresh fare, unfussy ambiance, and low prices. The most expensive appetizer was beef carpaccio at $6.95, which was also the cost for a plate of homemade spinach-ricotta ravioli; entrées topped out at $8.99 for snapper with seafood. Prices have crept upward over the many years but still cling to the cusp of the "budget" range.
In 2001, Oliveira hit pay dirt again, next door to Tutto Pasta with the similarly casual Tutto Pizza. About a year ago, he completed the Coral Way trifecta with the debut of Zucchero, his swankest effort to date. This latest venture advances the same sprightly salads, homemade pastas, and simply prepared meat, seafood, and poultry entrées. Yet with most appetizers in the $12 to $15 range, all but two pastas $15.95 to $18.95, and entrées $18.95 to $24.95, Zucchero lacks the value the Tuttos tout. (It seems management has picked up on this, for some entrée prices — which originally ranged up to $29.95 — were lowered between our visits.)
The restaurant has a warm, upscale look. An entry lounge, fronted by a glass wall facing umbrella-shaded outdoor tables, boasts a lengthy bar with a handsome backdrop of slatted wood. Hugging the flip side of that backdrop is a champagne-hued banquette that stretches along one wall of the dining room. The opposite wall opens up to a kitchen gleaming in stainless armor and framed by dramatically lighted white stone masonry and six stools lined up at a counter. In between are 40-plus seats around black lacquer tabletops and a rotund white pillar in the room's center. The notion you're partly paying for atmosphere is true here.
We spent a short while nibbling on nubs of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (presented on one visit but not another) and dinner rolls — some white, some wheat. In retrospect, I would have preferred nibbling for a longer stretch before our artichoke soufflé arrived — at least long enough for the kitchen crew to bake one from scratch. The moist, eggy, steamy-hot disk seemed to have been baked in a small muffin tin earlier and zapped to order. It was tasty with a top hat of black truffle slice and a pool of thick asparagus sauce slashed with oil from the same fungi, but this soufflé had less lift than Joe Pesci in flip-flops.
An appetizer plate of fritto misto delivered light, crisp calamari rings and small spheres of the creamiest baccalà croquettes. The third component, a duo of crab cakes, tasted either old or just unpleasant. A "black olive mayonnaise" dip on the side turned out to be marinara sauce, but it worked.
Pizza should be something of a Zucchero specialty. The sauce on our Margherita was slow-cooked to mellow sweetness, and the slices were cheesy, but the crust, fired in a 700-degree wood-burning oven, was thin as a dime — and thus too cracker-like crackly. Speaking of dimes: On our initial dinner visit, we needed 139 of them plus a nickel for the exceedingly small pizza; two other pies with toppings were $16.95 apiece. Now the three go for $12.95, $14.95, and $15.95.
Pasta is the best repast to feast upon here. Thick strands of spaghetti came tossed with basil-strewn marinara sauce and four Kobe meatballs that tasted just fine — but there's no need to go to all of that trouble massaging the cows with sake and everything if you're going to grind the meat; mix it with eggs, onions, breadcrumbs, seasonings, and cheese; and cook it medium to well-done.
Homemade ravioli are offered in three colors. Inky black ones come bathed in shellfish sauce; egg-yellow are filled with ricotta, mascarpone, and truffle oil; and green pouches, served beneath a salmon entrée, are wrapped around a heavily thyme-tinged spinach interior. The thin, well-seasoned fish was pan-seared to delectable effect, capped with tender pieces of bay scallop, and drizzled with a thin, somewhat timid mustard sauce. It was formerly the only of four seafood entrées under $25, but now all are $25 or less — although at $18.95, the salmon/scallop/ravioli dish is one of the menu's best deals.
Sliced flat-iron steak braced with Malbec demi-glace exuded a delicious char-grill flavor and strong herbal notes from the marinade. A parsley sprig and grape tomato garnish were like the traffic light over an accident of Parmesan-truffle risotto, whose overcooked grains were seemingly bereft of truffle, Parmesan, and even salt. The steak cost $21.95; upon my return, I noticed the price had dropped $3. Timing, as they say, is everything.
The wine list is relatively short but contains plenty of red heavy hitters from Italy and a number of California selections for under $40. There were also a number of pricier reserve bottles and an array of by-the-glass selections for around $8. Waiters are more supermarket Chianti than Super Tuscan — young, light, and accessible but not smoothly experienced or capable of complex interactions (partly owing to language). During a particularly slow evening, a clutch of servers with no patrons in their stations clowned among themselves, which was distracting in the practically empty room. This also speaks to lax management; anyone who has worked in restaurants knows there is always something to do. Otherwise, though, service was affable and acceptably alert.
Soffiato di guayaba is Zucchero's signature dessert, and it's a dandy. The flourless dome of guava cake is similar to the ubiquitous chocolate molten cake, except this one oozes a caramel-like fruit center. Homemade cream cheese ice cream flecked with sweet bits of guava matches up with the soffiato deliriously well. Lemon meringue pie was fresh and tasty too, but the cylindrical treat's filling was mousse-like rather than the traditional semitranslucent yellow curd.
A starter, main course, and dessert here would tend to total $40 to $50, excluding wine, coffee, tax, and tip. That's certainly not expensive for a fine-dining establishment, but while Zucchero wears a swank look, its food and service are more befitting a place with red-and-white checkered cloths and straw-wrapped bottles of Chianti on the tables, multiple menu mentions of truffle oil notwithstanding.
Ownership evidently recognized the need to lower prices a tad and has likewise added all sorts of supplemental deals: Each night, a three-course meal (with choices) of "Chef Oliveira's personal signature dishes" is offered for $19.95. Wednesday evenings bring 50 percent off bottles of wine. On Thursdays, every pasta plate goes for $10.95. That's more like it.