On its business card, this strip mall joint is actually called Michele European Bakery, Gelateria & Caffe, one of those names so long and unwieldly, you'd assume it says it all. It does not.
In back of the cafe (named for owner Michele Pompei, who trained and worked as a pastry chef in his native Venezuela, as well as in Italy), there's a gourmet market. The small space also has an art gallery that's a bit more committed than usual; the cafe touts local artists' shows in its advertising. During Sunday brunch and Friday happy hour, there's live jazz, making the place a sort of mini-multicultural hangout. And at night the simple cafe menu morphs into full-blown restaurant fare, offering dishes like ravioli d'aragosta (homemade ravioli with spiny lobster and shrimp, in a creamy almond curry sauce). Open since 2005, Michele is a small place with big ambitions.
While the cafe menu reads much like those at many other yuppified joints in town Caprese this, caesar that the chef's stringent European pastry background brings a noticeable difference in quality. The higher-fat European butter used in the bakery's pastries makes its croissants rich not as rich as some I've had in France that require no additional butter, but close.
Bagels were also good admittedly puffy-soft rather than the challengingly chewy classic New York variety, but let's face it: There are mornings when even New Yorkers just want to inhale breakfast, not fight with it. And the puff pastry shell enclosing Milan Scrambled Eggs, sampled on a first visit, made the mix of eggs, ham, cheese, and spinach a uniquely elegant way to start the day.
Lunch salads and sandwiches are both tasty and unusually substantial, particularly an ahi tuna salad: three thick, palm-size rounds of slightly seared sushi-grade tuna atop mixed greens. It's dressed with a subtly sweet, complex miso dressing, and garnished with crisp toasted crostini strips. And a panini packed with smoked Norwegian salmon (plus cream cheese, capers, and sweet onion) was more the size of a hoagie.
A Napoletana pizza with tomato sauce, cheese, extra virgin olive oil, and anchovies was also admirable. While the crust lacked char-blistering (a chef estimated the temperature of the cafe's brick oven at 700 degrees; the coal-fired oven at Manhattan's renowned Lombardi's averages 200 to 300 degrees higher), it was almost impossibly thin about one-sixteenth of an inch yet charmingly chewy. A generous amount of fresh mozzarella and beautifully pungent sauce made the pie most enjoyable.
As for dessert, the gelato counters were empty on our most recent visit, and most of the menu's tempting list of cakes (European specialties like Opera and Sacher torte) was absent, too. According to an apologetic server, highly perishable items are generally in short supply. But an apple tart was wonderful a layer of apricot-glazed, crisp-tart apple slices atop a light, creamy cheesecakelike filling, and a tender crust. Besides, this cafe isn't just a bakery; it's the kind of eatery that helps turn an area best known as a shopping strip into a real neighborhood.
16121 Biscayne Blvd, North Miami; 305-948-0224. Open Monday to Thursday 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Sunday 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
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