A Real Villagio

If Merrick Park were a real village, then Villagio would be a real Italian restaurant.

Wait a minute. Villagio is a real Italian restaurant.

Is it possible? Can this fashionable village of presumptive consumption -- whose inhabitants drive shiny new Mercedes, glide around on Manolo Blahniks, and gorge on designer loot with a flash of their American Express Centurions -- really be home to a moderately priced Italian restaurant with the sensibilities of an authentic Tuscan trattoria?



358 San Lorenzo Ave, Coral Gables

305-447-8144. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

In a word, yes. Praise the Lord and pass the gamberetti.

You can also thank chef Francisco Ramirez, who, unlike an annoying number of local gourmets, is a servant of flavor not flash. Ramirez's food is understated rather than over the top, and he knows a complete dish comprises more than a wacky creation surrounded by whatever the line cooks can scrape from beneath the deep-fryer.

To put it another way, the guy can flat-out cook.

The restaurant is flat-out gorgeous too. Owners Alexandre Kalas and Tom Billante dropped a few bills to ensure what would otherwise be a cavernous, charmless, generic shopping mall hole became a spacious, elegant expanse of rough-cut stone and marble and softly burnished wood. An exhibition kitchen is partially hidden behind a low wall at one end of the dining room, while the façade is a row of French doors that open onto a large outdoor patio and burbling fountain.

Ramirez offers diners a big menu encompassing all the usual Italian culinary suspects (fried calamari, caesar salad, pizza) in addition to more intriguing pastas, carpaccios, and those gamberetti I mentioned earlier. The finger-size rock shrimp arrive as part of a classic (albeit slightly pimped) Tuscan salad, coupled with plump cannellini beans, arugula, radicchio, diced tomatoes, and rice tossed in a delicate balsamic dressing.

The dish's success relies on fresh ingredients and a precise balance of flavors. It was deceptively simple yet so delicious; I felt rather unseemly wondering what the hell rice was doing in there when another handful of tender cannellinis would have made it absolute perfection.

Oh well. Drain the glass of soft, citrusy 2003 Maso Poli pinot grigio from Villagio's modestly intriguing but reasonably priced wine list and move on to "Pennette Harry's Bar." This uncomplicated, satisfying number pairs diminutive pasta tubes with a rustic, sunny-tasting sauce of tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, spinach, and pine nuts. Yes, it's inspired by that Harry's Bar and it makes the journey from Venice to Coral Gables quite nicely, thank you.

Now we're sipping a suave Chianti, the 2002 Terrabianca -- earthy yet elegant, with smoky cherry-berry fruit -- and I'm drooling over one of the best dishes to stain my napkin in months. It's lombata passana, a sizable veal chop pounded to about the thickness of a notebook, still wearing a fearsome-looking bone that's been frenched so carefully it appears to have been sandblasted and then steam-cleaned.

To reach the fork-tender meat you have to dig through a mélange of roasted potatoes, artichoke hearts, arugula, and radicchio that alone is almost worth the price of the meal. But that's not all. Tucked beneath the chop is a golden-crusted potato cake, crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside, plus a mound of well-cooked broccoli rabe, its bitterness tamed by a quick sauté with garlic and pine nuts.

For dessert it's tiramisu, an abundance (perhaps even an overabundance) of airily whipped mascarpone layered with Kahlua-soaked ladyfingers and drizzled with chocolate sauce, the kind of thing you'd find in a real Italian restaurant in a real Italian village, not in some sprawling suburban temple built to entertain the joys of rabid consumerism. Unless of course the restaurant is Villagio.


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