All My Bambinos

Surfside. Bal Harbour. North Bay Village. Bay Harbor Islands. A war brews in the least likely of neighborhoods. Only this one isn't about drugs, guns, or gangs. This fight's about noodles.

Prompted by my remark a few columns ago linking Oggi Caffe to Cafe Prima Pasta, Prima Pasta's owner Gerardo Cea called me. "We don't buy our pasta from Oggi any more," he said, clearly agitated. "They cut us off. For a year and a half now, we make our own." He proceeded to list a litany of complaints against Oggi owners Eloy Roy (his cousin by marriage) and Alex Portela, insisting Portela has been talking trash about Prima Pasta and even threatening his staff.

In retaliation, Cea said, he has stopped referring customers to his cousin's 79th Street Causeway restaurant when his own 71st Street eatery is too busy; now he sends them a few blocks in the other direction to Cafe Ragazzi, owned by his good friend Emilio di Carlo. (The third trattoria to open in the general area after Oggi and Prima Pasta, Ragazzi also depended on Oggi's distinctive pasta before being struck off the purveying list last year.) In fact, Ragazzi is the only place where Cea himself will dine.

"I don't want to go against them or them to go against me," Eloy Roy responds diplomatically. But though he downplays the conflict, he is plainly furious about Cea's charges. In return, he accuses his cousin of mimicking Oggi's philosophy, from the number of seats to the preparation of dishes to the actual layout of the menu (a similarity I noted in my review of Prima Pasta). Cea's allegations regarding his partner Portela, Roy adds, are nonsense; in fact he caught Cea handing out Prima Pasta business cards while dining free at Oggi. Moreover, he goes on, he didn't cut off Prima Pasta -- it was Cea who quit buying pasta from him. As for Cafe Ragazzi, according to Roy they discontinued their daily order after he and Portela opened Caffe Da Vinci on Kane Concourse -- in a location Ragazzi had coveted.

And I thought writers were a back-stabbing lot.
If Matteo Giuffrida suspects that his six-week-old Surfside trattoria Matteo & Alfredo lies smack in the middle of a battlefield, he doesn't much care. Despite Cea's claims that Giuffrida dismissed Ragazzi as a "low-budget pizza place," Giuffrida denies the accusation. "I am for everybody," he says. In the actions-speak-louder-than-words department, let it be known that Giuffrida's partner Alfredo Alvarez is concurrently the executive chef at Giacosa in Coral Gables and is a former student of Giuffrida who still occasionally calls his teacher "maestro" when he stops by to "steal recipes." Competition seems far from Giuffrida's mind.

This lack of concern stems from a well-earned confidence. In 1986 Giuffrida inaugurated Beijing's first Italian restaurant, called El Tula, in the Shangri-La Hotel. The veteran chef went on to open and run Alfredo's the Original of Rome locations in Miami in 1988, New York in 1994, and Boca Raton in 1995. He's used to big kitchens and bigger egos; the walls of Matteo & Alfredo are covered with diplomas, accolades, and pictures of the chef with star customers. This small-pond stuff doesn't excite his interest. His 40-seat trattoria, which reminds him of his grandmother's restaurant in Apulia (in southern Italy), does.

Though he might miss the generous salary and regret having to take out a second mortgage on his home, Giuffrida is finally free of corporate politics and rigid menus. Now, he says, "I can do the things I do at home when I have my day off." Those things include peppering his Italian dishes with ingredients culled from the East, pushing the olive oil envelope with sesame oil, and replacing oils altogether with soy sauce and lemon rind for flavorful, fat-free eating.

Like the Latin-Asian fusion cuisine served up at Two Sisters restaurant (in the Hyatt Regency in Coral Gables), Matteo & Alfredo's combos sound weird on paper -- beef carpaccio with Parmesan and bamboo shoots, tuna carpaccio with oyster and soy sauces -- but they tend to work. A wonderfully successful salad paired sea scallops with flying-fish roe. Braised briefly in sesame oil and a trio of sauces A soy, oyster, and a tomato-flavored Vietnamese fish sauce Giuffrida calls shizaky A the scallops were delicate and pearly, piled over pale stalks of endive and vibrant leaves of spinach. Wasabi-scented, green-tinged flying-fish caviar, bursting individually in the mouth, provided tasty textural contrast. The menu changes daily, but this starter should be a keeper.

Spinach also surrounded a more traditional Italian appetizer, a triple tier of homemade mozzarella, eggplant, and sliced plum tomato. Laced with extra-virgin olive oil, the cheese was velvety and mild, sandwiched by the pieces of soft, skin-on eggplant, while juicy tomatoes splashed color onto the earthy landscape.

We passed up pasta e fagioli in favor of cream of asparagus, the other soup offering the night we visited. The color and consistency of split pea soup, this was a rich, Parmesan-enhanced treat, which we appreciated properly, soaking up the remains with coarse-grained country bread with such gusto that the waiter asked whether we were Italian. "No," my husband replied. "Just happy."

Pastas made us even happier. Giuffrida rolls, twists, and cuts his own, stuffing ravioli with mushrooms and spinach, coloring fettuccine with ink he drains from squid, which he then throws away. ("Everyone does fried calamari," he says.) A creation such as gnocchi di ricotta certainly distinguishes him from his neighbors. Perfect for sharing as an appetizer, these little hand-rolled nuggets were balls of fluff. A slow-cooked veal ragu sauce was smooth and hearty, its meatiness lightened by bits of lemon zest. Fresh Italian feta cheese, creamier and nuttier than the Greek version, was diced over the top.

Fish lasagna was another of the chef's tasty inventions. Between sheets of homemade noodles, flaky white sole had been poached in a white wine broth flavored with shallots, onion, ginger, and lemon zest. Shrimp were cooked in their shells, peeled, and chopped before being added to the casserole; the shrimp water was then used to formulate the lasagna's bechamel sauce. Fragrant Parmesan cheese toasted the top.

Fish without the cholesterol was available in the form of whole "Key West" snapper, baked and served in the same skillet after having been filleted tableside. The sweet, mild flesh was then doused with an aromatic sauce comprising olive oil, fresh oregano, and lemon, and accompanied by the vegetables of the day -- in this case a failed sweet-and-sour ratatouille, which was oily and bitter.

Other main courses cover all the carnivorous bases, highlighting both stewed shank and grilled rack of lamb and stewed shank and grilled chop of veal. Though a little underdone, beef tenderloin was an incredible bargain, a huge chunk of meat for nineteen dollars. Cut in half, this portion would have produced two inches-thick filets. The tender meat was coated with a Barolo wine demiglace in which juicy mushrooms were floating, gravy that also graced a side portion of garlicky mashed potatoes. Hearty stuff.

Four grilled jumbo shrimp were also portioned for the bigger appetite. But this concoction was truly bizarre, and I'm not sure I'd essay it again. The shrimp were perfectly cooked, supple as lobster. But the shizaky sauce that covered them was jarring, too Asian for the atmosphere. Alfalfa sprouts draping the plate also seemed misguided, a California health-food accent. And the companion ratatouille was no better here. We laughed at the tongue-in-cheek design, however. The sight of four wood-staked prawns stuck in a lemon base and dripping sprouts like mantillas was almost worth the eighteen-dollar price of the experiment.

Like the fare, service at Matteo & Alfredo was inventive. The Jim Carrey of the food industry, our waiter liked to play tricks, bringing out an occasional kitchen tool with the food (slotted spoons with espresso cups, for example) instead of the customary utensil. His teasing did interfere once with service A the rather fluorescent raspberry-basil cheesecake, which he flung dramatically off the dessert tray when we expressed interest. The cake itself tasted a little sour and melted, as if it had been sitting there all evening; a bittersweet chocolate torte was better, though also a bit too warm. But for the most part, the server's intentional clowning was well meant, and on our parts, well met.

So well met, in fact, that I think Oggi, Prima Pasta, and Ragazzi should take the hint and lighten up. I have eaten in all these restaurants and enjoyed them for their similarities as well as their differences. And I admire the generals in this ridiculous skirmish, who learned their trade as foot soldiers at the same few Italian restaurants -- Caffes Baci and Abbracci in the Gables, and the infamous Buccione in Coconut Grove -- working their way up from waiters. Cea puts it best: None of these guys was "born with a restaurant, like Joe's Stone Crab."

But I am not a fan of pettiness, and I refuse to referee it. Every restaurateur's dream is to turn away customers, and these guys -- men who have been family, friends, and co-workers -- are fighting about it. I'll take my cue from Italian restaurant fixture Paolo Retani, partner at Caffe Da Vinci and the only player in this tiny drama about whom no one has a bad thing to say. Call him Switzerland on this stormy Italian front. I last saw Retani not running the front at Da Vinci but delightedly munching away at Matteo & Alfredo, and judging by the look of pleasure on his face, it wasn't just to check out the competition.

And as for Cea, I'd be careful about invoking the name of Holy Joe's if I were him. Stone crab claws pinch a heck of a lot sharper than pasta.


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