A Grip On Grappa
After we'd finished the dessert course at Grappa, gracious owner Claudio Nunes approached our table with a bottle of the restaurant's namesake liquor (something he was offering all the patrons this evening), and some handblown glasses produced especially for this potent, woody alcohol. It occurred to me that I hadn't tasted the stuff in years, not since some hearty Sardinian hosts insisted upon my doing so, in abundant quantities, leading to what my wife calls "the olive oil incident." The grappa being served back then was dripping from a homemade still, in a garage that had been converted into something of an epicurean paradise, stocked as it was with the numerous products this particular farm produced. We sat surrounded by baskets of vegetables and two barrels, the first containing olives, the other olive oil; cured legs of wild boar hung from the ceiling, one of which was taken down and, after an appreciable amount of dust was brushed off, whittled into thin pink slices of prosciutto.
I was enjoying the meat immensely, laying it onto thick chunks of rustic bread, occasionally getting up and scooping a handful of olives to bring back to our makeshift table. And drinking more grappa. The last clear memory I have of that afternoon: swishing my arm around the inside of the olive barrel, digging in up to my elbow, visibly puzzled at the lack of olives that just minutes ago had been filled to the top; I only vaguely recall my wife wiping off my oil-drenched arm with a towel. From her retelling of the story, those in the garage evidently found a good deal of humor in my travail and no doubt from time to time still refer to the American who couldn't get a grip on his grappa.
I did get a grip on this Grappa, a straight-shooting Italian restaurant near the Shops at Sunset Place in South Miami, where Jada used to be. The room comforts with soft lighting and warm rusty tones, an intimate four-stool bar up front, a spacious kitchen in back. Colorful paintings brighten one side of the space, while set into the opposite wall are gorgeous grappa bottles exhibited in lit glass cases. It's a handsome 74-seat room that offers just the right ambiance for dining in tasteful, casual fashion.
A stripped-to-basics menu accurately reflects the Italian Cooking 101 cuisine. Chefs refer to meals such as these as "idiot-proof," meaning the recipes are so rudimentary that one needn't be a master chef to oversee their production. This doesn't imply the food is bad, just that it doesn't take much finesse to put together. Mussels steamed in tomato sauce, olive oil, and garlic is, in fact, the only appetizer that requires cooking. Other antipasti include mozzarella caprese and melanzane alla mozzarella, the former precisely defined on the menu as "slices of fresh Italian mozzarella di bufala with tomatoes, basil, and olive oil," the latter the same thing with two disks of eggplant slipped between the tomatoes and cheese. Beef carpaccio rounds out the selections, though a different appetizer special is presented nightly, on one occasion snappy spears of asparagus neatly gratinéed with Parmesan cheese.
The quartet of salads is no less fundamental: caesar; spinach with tomatoes, red onions, and mushrooms; a house mix of field greens; and insalata Grappa, the same greens centered by a radicchio cup brimming with artichoke hearts, red onion, white mushrooms, and cubes of beet, whose sweetness vainly attempts to equalize the salinity of two remaining ingredients, capers and anchovies. In the end a too-thorough application of too-powerful balsamic vinegar drowned sweet and salty alike.
Homemade pastas yielded mixed results: fettuccine, generously adorned with porcinis in a creamy mushroom sauce, was wonderfully rich; thin strands of white and green tagliolini, clumped in parts, were tossed in a "traditional Italian tomato sauce" based on a bland brand of canned tomatoes and a potently unpleasant garlic taste, as though the cloves had been cleaned the day before. This is not a red sauce that traditional Italians would likely approve of, nor would they consider a sprig of parsley on the bowl's ledge the most judicious use of fresh herbs. Grappa uses herbs almost solely as garnish, rarely taking advantage of their flavors in the cooking process, which is more indicative of culinary-student enthusiasm than a chef's seasoned subtlety. Same is true of the crudely carved radish roses used to decorate most plates.
I object to the "pounded and breaded veal chop on a bed of rucola [arugula] and tomatoes" not because of its presentation or for any lack of quality, preparation, or authenticity but rather on the grounds that pummeling a thick, beautiful veal chop until it's the size of a record album, coating it in bread crumbs, and dropping it in a fryer is not the best way to bring out this particular cut's more succulent attributes. The sprightly rucola salad proved refreshing, as did a half-lemon, whose squeeze greatly invigorated the veal. For a similarly pricey $28, though, you can attain a thicker satisfaction from grilled sirloin with green pepper sauce, filet mignon with red wine sauce, and rack of lamb accompanied by potato gratin and thyme dressing. Both veal scaloppini and chicken with porcini mushrooms cost about ten dollars less, the chicken with a voluptuous brown marsala gravy and two piped dollops of heavily oregano-ed mashed potatoes, which actually melded quite well with the sauce.
Jumbo garlic-sautéed scampi joined a duo of fish dishes -- grilled salmon fillet with sautéed spinach and pine nuts, and grilled tuna with mashed potatoes and rucola dressing -- and a nightly special as the sole seafood. On one occasion a catch du jour of seared red snapper came lightly browned, suggesting the fish was subjected to what more accurately is described as a sauté. The fresh fillet nonetheless was tasty, with tidbits of diced shrimp and an orange sauce spiked with Grand Marnier and citrus zest. Green beans, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts served as accompaniments to the snapper, which I was surprised to see priced at $29; the two other fish on the menu cost $18 and $19. Then again prices here are as difficult to grasp as olives in a barrel of olive oil. While the fare compares with other successful "moderate" Italian restaurants, most dishes come at a discernibly higher cost. I wouldn't have been so taken aback by the $29 tag if there were something singular about the fish, perhaps a Hawaiian blue prawn plopped on top. Okay, maybe that's too much to hope for but how about a starch on the side?
Desserts get reeled off verbally by the waiter, allowing Grappa to alter the choices slightly from night to night. Tiramisu, cheesecake, and apple crêpe with vanilla ice cream usually are on hand, as is a chilled wedge of lemony ricotta cake dressed with drizzles of raspberry and vanilla sauces. Same vanilla sauce got squirted on a pear tart, the crust of which was imbued with refrigerator odor.
If you tend to enjoy the aforementioned foods and don't mind paying Escopazzo prices for an Oggi performance, you might just go home from Grappa a happy fan. I certainly exited smiling, particularly after quaffing a coupla glasses of single-grape grappa. It was then I declared to my wife that if any Sardinians should ever come visit us, this is where we'll take them.
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