As Italian as a Caesar Salad
When in Rome, fourth-century Italian Saint Ambrose advised Saint Augustine, do as the Romans do.
In terms of food, that would mean eating appetizers such as supplì al telefono (mozzarella-filled, deep-fried rice balls); entrées like abbacchio alla Romana (milk-fed suckling lamb sauced with garlic, rosemary, anchovies, and vinegar); hearty panzanella salads (leftover bread dressed with olive oil, vinegar, tomatoes, and basil); and richly flavorful pasta sauces such as carbonara (pancetta, eggs, Parmesan, and pepper), cacio e pepe (pecorino and a ton of pepper), and all'Amatriciana, featuring guanciale (cured hog jowls), tomato, oil, pecorino, and hot peppers. And, with apologies to the saints, one mustn't neglect savory anchovy-and-chile-spiked pasta alla puttanesca whore's spaghetti, so christened because it's fast, easily made, and very, very hot.
Although Ludo's menu describes its food as true Roman-Italian cuisine, you won't find any of the above dishes here. What will you find? Three of the five salads listed comprise a niçoise (from the French Riviera), a caesar (invented in either Mexico or Chicago), and the isle of Capri's Caprese. Entrées include beef Stroganoff and that authentically Roman classic, mahi-mahi. Most of the menu is a roundup of the usual suspects found at most of Miami's Italian eateries, from carpaccio starters to a tiramisu finish.
The cozy restaurant does serve a few typically Roman items. Ricotta-and-spinach-stuffed ravioli, though not terribly imaginative, were plump and tasty housemade pasta packets. Also popular in the Italian capital are gnocchi; though gnocchi alla Romana are traditionally made from semolina flour, Ludo's are potato dumplings. Additionally, Roman gnocchi are generally served with assertive sauces (like pecorino and pepper, or sometimes meat and tomato) not Ludo's mild pink concoction.
Pizzas are truly Roman-style, with crusts nearly as thin as soda crackers. Unfortunately the crust of my Margherita pie was almost as hard and dry as a soda cracker, and equally bland no seductive charcoal-oven burn bubbles, no sourdough tang, no salt, no drizzle of olive oil.
The tastiest dishes I tried at Ludo's were not even authentically Italian, much less of Roman origin. They were the kind of Italian-American recipes served in every red-sauce joint in the region of New Jersey nonetheless tasty. A lunch special of veal Parmesan (originally created in America by nineteenth-century Italian immigrants) was a thin, tender, juicy breaded cutlet easily seven inches wide. Accompanying the precision-fried veal were skillfully roasted rosemary-spiced potatoes and mixed vegetables.
What was billed as antipasto Italiano brought irritatingly bland, generic-tasting cheese slices in place of the promised mozzarella, but the prosciutto and sopressata-style salami were of good quality. Homemade meat lasagna, though not the spinach or porcini version I'd have preferred to have selected from Ludo's lasagna-of-the-day list, was nevertheless satisfying. And the pasta e fagioli soup of the day, despite mushy macaroni (more typical of Jersey's pasta fazool than Italy's al dente noodles) was as savory a version as I've had anywhere else in Sopranos country.
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