Dining Aria

I hadn't thought about Anna Maria Alberghetti in years. It's been that long since the petite Italian woman would appear on the tube, sprinkle a little salad dressing over an antipasto, and exclaim, "Now that's Italian!" The only reason most viewers, including myself, knew of her at all was because some deep voice would invoke her name as if it were a household word. And it worked.

But though Anna Maria's image has faded from the screen, her famous signature slogan returned to me in apocalyptic fashion one recent evening at Cafe Zio, a three-month-old restaurant on South Miami's refurbished Sunset Strip. At first bite of the warm rolls, doused with olive oil and crowned with fresh, grated garlic and chopped parsley, I declared to my dining companion and a friend, "Now that's Italian."

There are no surprises on chef-owner Salvatore Troia's menu, just the standard selection of pastas, pizzas, chicken, veal, and seafood dishes. But there's something comforting about not having to consult my Italian-English dictionary before ordering, although I did check it to confirm that zio means - as you Spanish speakers probably guessed - "uncle." It's a fitting name, for the restaurant is as warm and generous as a zio favorito.

For openers, we decided to share the fried zucchini, and were presented with a platter of a dozen golden-brown strips surrounding a bowl of marinara sauce. Even my dining companion, who is not a big fan of vegetables, gobbled them with obvious relish. The strips were perfectly fried, crunchy on the outside but moist inside, and contained so little oil residue that the white paper doily on which they rested remained pristine after we had finished them. The thick, warm marinara dipping sauce, redolent with fresh basil, was a precursor of good things to come, and I found myself eating it by the teaspoonful. Other appetizers include fried mozzarella or calamari, each served with the same marvelous marinara, steamed mussels, and crab-stuffed mushrooms, which at $6.50 is the highest-priced starter on the menu.

For the soup-or-salad course, I feasted on a cup of pasta e fagioli that was chock full of ziti, white beans, and hearty, ham-infused broth. Ordered separately, it costs a dollar more than the other soups - minestrone and the soup of the day - but is worth every penny for its restorative qualities. The feature soup on our visit was broccoli, which our friend ordered, and when he graciously allowed me to taste the dregs, I found it paled in comparison to the pasta e fagioli. But he was quite satisfied with it, and noted that the somewhat-watery broth was a welcome counterpoint to all the starches being consumed. My dining companion cleansed his carbo-garlicky palate with the simple lettuce-and-tomato house salad that was included with his entree. A bottle of Bolla Valpolicella, accurately described on the menu as "fresh and zestful with lots of fruit" and reasonably priced at $14, aided in his effort. Thirty-six well-chosen wines are available, nearly half of which are from Italy. The most expensive is a Barolo Zonchera from Ceretto at $35, one of only seven on the list priced above $20. And rather than cheap jug wine, a Pinot Grigio from Torresella, a red or white Chardonnay from Bolla, and a white zinfandel from Sebastiani are featured by the glass at $3.25.

All three of us opted for pasta entrees, and though we were pleased with our selections, my dining companion was beneficiary of the best, the tortellini ($10.95). These tiny pasta dumplings may be ordered stuffed with cheese or meat and served with a choice of Alfredo or marinara sauce. Enamored of the chef's touch with the latter, my dining companion chose it over the cream sauce, and preferred the finely ground, mild Italian sausage filling to the cheese. The sauce was lighter in texture, prepared with fewer tomatoes and more meat-based stock than the marinara used in our other selections. A symphony of herbs, most noticeably basil, made it a stand-out.

Tasty but much heavier were my "pasta combo," an $8.95 platter heaped with lasagna, cheese ravioli, and eggplant baked with tomato sauce and mozzarella, and our visitor's choice, the lasagna. Every bite of the smooth ricotta in the lasagna tasted fresh, as did the thicker-textured mozzarella, which was baked to a golden glaze around the plates' edges but retained its creaminess. The slightly sweet marinara on both our dishes was flecked with marjoram and assorted garden-fresh herbs.

While the menu consists of typical Italian fare, the cafe's setting is an eclectic cross between California fancy and Miami sports-bar - minus the bar and racket. Multi-level, carpeted rooms sport pedestals with TV sets tuned in to a satellite. On the night we visited, the tube nearest us was tuned to a basketball game, but the sound was off, and in its place, opera tunes were piped softly into our room. Later, our waiter proudly disclosed that the restaurant boasts a collection of 250 Italian music tapes.

One thing that did not jibe with the authentic Italian aura of the restaurant was the choice of desserts. The selection changes daily, and on this day there was no zabaglione, no zuppa inglese, no spumoni or cannoli. Instead we were offered homemade finales of mud pie or white-chocolate-mousse cheesecake. Our waiter, somewhat alarmed at our reaction to the lack of traditional Italian sweets, insisted on bringing us a generous slice of the mousse cake - gratis - to prove how good (and how Italiano) it tasted. And he was right. The filling was of a flavor and texture somewhere between those of a dense cheesecake and the fluffy ricotta mixture used in cannoli. Lightly sweetened with white chocolate, the dessert was encased in a thin shell of dark chocolate. Our guest loved it, even though he abhors white chocolate. The cake was so delicious we were tempted to sample the mud pie, but we feared our waiter would insist on treating us again.

We plan to return to Cafe Zio soon, perhaps to sample the saltimbocca, an extravaganza of veal rolled around prosciutto and fontina cheese, served over spinach and topped with mushroom sauce. You can eat here for a song, or maybe I should say an aria. Ronald Reagan used to warn commie leaders to "cry uncle." But in South Miami, we needn't be compelled to say Zio. Here it means hearty eating, a pleasing atmosphere, and very little pain in the pocketbook.

Now that's Italian.

CAFE ZIO 10855 Sunset Dr; 279-6090. Hours: Lunch Monday - Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.; dinner Sunday - Thursday from 4:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 4:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Sunday brunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.


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