Din and Dinner

I remember standing in front of an open refrigerator, scanning the packed contents and yelling, "Mom, there's nothing to eat in here!"

"What are you talking about?" my mother invariably replied. "I just went shopping."

It wasn't that there was no food, of course. Just no appealing food. Nothing interesting. Nothing I hadn't eaten a hundred times before.

Frustrated, I'd settle for something familiar, something like eggs. Something that wouldn't do much for my palate but would allow me to close the refrigerator door and spare me a lecture on wasting electricity.

I recall this feeling so vividly not because my own refrigerator bores the heck out of me (it does), but because it returns every time I go out to eat in Coconut Grove. If the Grove were a fridge, I'd have burned out the light by now. Sure, there are plenty of restaurants. But there's nothing to eat.

Just as I enjoy the occasional stroll down Ocean Drive, I like to walk around the Grove once in a while. Yeah, the place could take out a patent on tawdry, but it's also vibrant. And energetic (if loud and overcrowded). Teeming with life (albeit very young life -- as in adolescent). The trouble is that the restaurant scene -- Virtua Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Sticky Fingers, et cetera -- now reflects that same party mood, and very little else.

Still, I occasionally manage to convince myself it'll be different. I go to the Grove with a bunch of friends, thinking, who knows, maybe we'll stumble across that great little restaurant, that symbol of bygone days when you went to a restaurant in the Grove and got actual food, not a theme. And after walking around and around, I usually end up at the one eatery in the area that has stood the test of time and tourists: PauloLuigi's.

A homey Italian spot known for its red-and-white tablecloths, extensive porch seating, and dim wood-paneled interior decorated with photos of employees' children, for the past twelve years PauloLuigi's has been a local standby for pizza, pasta, and good meat and poultry dishes that are generally reliable, if familiar as ... well, familiar as eggs. But while this place doesn't pretend to attract movie stars, it does appeal to a certain celebrity circle: Sports Illustrated recently named the restaurant a favorite destination of NBA players. And the eatery, which also caters the flights of visiting professional baseball, basketball, and hockey teams, maintains an illusion worthy of Planet Hollywood -- PauloLuigi is actually proprietor Paul Shalaj, a chef of Albanian descent who lived in southern Italy before opening his pseudo-namesake in 1985.

I did see some extraordinarily tall individuals the night I last visited, but to tell the truth, I was more interested in the rolls dripping garlic than in any out-of-state ball-dribblers. The crusty rolls (the first batch is free; you can order an additional half-dozen for two bucks) were potent with the garlic and grated Parmesan cheese, though the tops were disappointingly burned. On the other hand, the kitchen erred on the side of caution with an underdone pizza "Principessa" topped with grilled eggplant, asparagus, mozzarella, and oregano. The pizza was soggy in the middle and too skimpy on the tomato sauce, and it could have done without the baby eggplant, which was bitter. The pencil-thin asparagus, though, did add crisp flair to the melted mozzarella.

Another starter, sauteed calamari, showed the kitchen's better side. A plenitude of squid rings and legs was a little tough but tasty nonetheless, doused with a wonderful tomato sauce that was garlicky and aromatic with seafood essence. The squid is also available deep-fried or breaded and broiled (the latter, the menu warns, takes twenty minutes to prepare). We also thoroughly enjoyed a garlic-hearty pasta fagioli, though the soup was very thick and the white beans and soft noodles were beginning to disintegrate, a sign that it had been cooked for a very long time.

A choice of caesar or house salad comes with entrees, but we ordered an insalata caprichos, for its garnishes: artichoke hearts, briny black olives, pimientos, and rolled-up slices of coppacola (spicy ham), salami, and provolone cheese, all perched on a feathery bed of romaine. The fresh, crisp lettuce had been tossed with a tasty dijon vinaigrette. The caesar too featured a lovely dressing, with prominent notes of garlic and Parmesan, while the house salad, a combination of romaine, grated carrot, and sliced red onion, was served with a homemade creamy Italian dressing sharp with vinegar alongside.

Carbo loaders must think PauloLuigi's is nirvana -- the restaurant offers 30 such dishes to choose from. The variety of the pastas makes it hard for a starch lover like me to select dinner, but I found a food-group compromise with a simple preparation of spaghetti and meatballs. The long noodles were blanketed with a smooth and rich gravy, just the way I like it, but I wasn't impressed with the two meatballs, which had too-large chunks of garlic in them and were sodden with breadcrumbs.

A more inventive pasta, rigatti boscaiole, was a point of confusion. Rigatti, which are large rigatoni, are translated on the menu as tortelloni. In some parts of Italy, tortelloni does mean square rather than stuffed noodles, but most Americans aren't privy to that fact. My guest was twice surprised when she next discovered Italian sausage in her dish, which hadn't been in the description either. We quickly realized that while the noodles were correct, the dish wasn't what she had ordered, and we sent it back. The replacement entree, a vegetarian combination including peas, portobello mushrooms, artichokes, and asparagus, came steaming to the table pleasant and light but unevenly cooked, with some of the rigatti al dente and the rest mushy.

A combination of shrimp and scallops Mediterraneo, served over linguine, was generous but dreadful. The shrimp, sauteed in kalamata olive oil, were succulent, but the scallops were dry-edged and so rubbery they'd probably have bounced had we dropped them. Sliced white mushrooms were plentiful but didn't add much in the way of flavor; as a result, the white wine sauce on the pasta was flat and uninteresting.

Unlike at other Italian restaurants, PauloLuigi's meat and poultry dishes aren't overshadowed by the pastas. Veal scaloppine Portofino, a half-dozen supple medallions of veal dredged in flour and briefly pan-fried, was delicious, the veal's lemony, white wine sauce complemented by artichokes and olives. Pollo cardinale, a similar preparation made with chicken, was even tastier. The boneless white meat was luscious and juicy under its savory sauce and was garnished with artichokes and asparagus. Both meals were served with a side of linguine with marinara.

Though I visit Paulo-Luigi's for comfort, not creativity, dessert choices were downright dull: tiramisu, tartufo, or chocolate cake. The layer cake was dark and rich but tasted refrigerated; we ate it awkwardly with spoons the waiter had tossed at us. "Oh, you want forks? I got forks," he said, gathering up the freshly laid silver from another, just-cleaned table (much to the frustration of the busboy) and depositing it in a heap. "Whatever you want."

Actually, what we wanted was better service; in fact, I'd lay most of our dining difficulties at our server's roving feet. Brusque and officious, he seemed incapable of taking a two-course order, running off so he could tell the kitchen to start our appetizers, then disappearing for long minutes before coming back to write down our entrees. He called his busboy "lame" in our presence -- an off-putting breach of etiquette, not to mention human decency. He cleared the table for entrees by dropping the dirty plates on another table, which a party had just left. Perhaps that wouldn't have been so offensive had he not also grabbed the nearly empty bowl of grated Parmesan cheese from that table and thrown it onto ours for the pasta. And he didn't seem to know what the kitchen had in stock that evening, coming back once to tell us that the minestrone we'd ordered was not available, then again to inform one of my guests that he'd be served a steak instead of the veal chop he'd requested.

My friend was a bit bewildered. "I don't want a steak," he said.
"Sure you do. It's a New York strip; we do it beautiful, with a nice mushroom sauce."

"But I don't want a steak."
Though we eventually ordered another, lower-priced veal dish, we were charged for the chop.

Last month Paul Shalaj opened PauloLuigi's Brick Oven Pizzeria in Pembroke Pines; as operations smooth out there, I hope the original Coconut Grove restaurant, usually consistent and reliable, will calm down. And unless the scene changes significantly in the Grove, I'll be back to check. Because even on an off night the restaurant outplays the competition.

3324 Virginia St, Coconut Grove; 445-9000. Lunch and dinner Monday -- Friday from 11:00 a.m. to midnight (open Friday until 1:00 a.m.). Dinner Saturday from 4:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. and Sunday from 4:00 to 11:00 p.m.

Pasta fagioli (bowl)
Spaghetti and meatballs
Chicken cardinale
Veal scaloppine Portofino
Chocolate cake


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