When Alice Waters recently appeared at Books & Books to tout her new book, The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution, she was asked if there were any restaurants in Miami that seemed to be following her organic canon. The prophetess of slow food replied there was only one she knew of: Escopazzo.
Anyone who hasn't been to this popular South Beach eatery in a while would likely be surprised by that answer. After all, since opening on Washington Avenue in 1993, the restaurant's calling card has been creative Northern Italian cuisine. Husband/wife chef/owners Pino and Giancarla Bodoni garnered enough critical acclaim and devotees that in 1997 they expanded their quaint eatery from 35 to 90 seats. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is an axiom the couple apparently does not take seriously. In 2003 they revamped the menu, with a tighter focus on local organic ingredients; the bill of fare even included a raw soup du jour. Nowadays 100 percent of the restaurant's fruits, vegetables, and dairy products is organic; beef is grass-fed and hormone/antibiotic-free; raw selections have been increased; and its moniker has been expanded to Escopazzo Organic Italian Restaurant ("the first in America," according to the website).
The word escopazzo means "I am going crazy," but with increasing attention being paid to sourcing and integrity of ingredients, the idea of highlighting one's allegiance to such might be better translated as "crazy like a fox." The restaurant looks pretty much the same as always — rustic Italian featuring white-linen-draped tables and a mural of Italian landscapes painted by multitalented Giancarla. Framed articles and accolades line a narrow passage leading to a faux Tuscan courtyard in the rear, often used for private parties. Hundreds of bottles culled from Italy's wine regions are stored back there as well, in glass, temperature-controlled cases. Pino, an accredited sommelier and wine enthusiast, offers some old vintages from his personal collection plus a good number of midrange wines.
Escopazzo Organic Italian Restaurant
1311 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-674-9450. Open for dinner Monday through Friday 6 p.m. to midnight, Saturday 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., Sunday 6 to 11 p.m.
Except for the raw foods, the newer organic menu is indistinguishable in style from the old one. Those seeking classic Italian fare, albeit with contemporary touches, will find comfort in a starter of grilled, goat cheese-stuffed eggplant rolls atop a gentle sauté of baby calamari, sweet cherry tomatoes, and mint. Carpaccio of swordfish or smoked beef, or a main course of rosemary tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce, will likewise nullify concerns among conservative diners that the fare is somehow related to hippie health food. Italians, like most Europeans, have long relied on locally grown organic produce for their meals. They are not in the process of discovering artisan foods, but preserving them — Italy is the birthplace and headquarters for the worldwide slow-food movement.
On the other hand, some items are anything but traditional — like "lasagnetta," which you might mistake for meaning "little lasagna," but which apparently translates to "a little like lasagna if you have a fanciful imagination." If you have no such expectations, the dish is delicious and refreshingly light, with slices of milky bufala mozzarella loosely folded in sheets of egg noodles, topped with warmed grape tomatoes, and pooled in a thin herb sauce.
Giancarla and Pino are both experienced chefs, but the former has taken over cooking in recent years. Although not as high-profile as other toques, Ms. Bodoni is nonetheless one of Miami's more accomplished culinarians, and a pioneer in the movement toward well-sourced foods. Her adroit touch at matching ingredients and her ability to balance big flavors are displayed in a signature starter of silky asparagus flan floated in a creamy fondue of fontina and smoked provola cheeses, capped with crisp shiitake mushrooms, and misted with a whiff of white truffle oil.
Another longtime Escopazzo standard brings coral-color triangles of handmade ravioli plumped with butternut squash and amaretto. An earthy truffle cream sauce daintily dotted with finely diced vegetables cuts against the dulcet notes of the filling, but the dish is still more sweet than savory; might be better suited to split it as an appetizer. It is also pricey for a pasta ($29), but everything here is expensive. This could be related to recent University of Washington research that shows "good, healthy foods had soared in price over a two-year period, jumping by nearly 20 percent." One of the researchers, Adam Drewnowsky, concluded that "Eating well is really becoming unaffordable for many, even in the middle class."
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Witness the pricing of Escopazzo's three pedigree meat entrées, which range from $45 to $58. There is no questioning the quality: A bulky, Barbera wine-braised beef short rib comes from cows humanely raised in Montana; the pan-seared veal chop in walnut and sage sauce comes from calves in Painted Hills Farm in Texas; and espresso-dusted pork tenderloin is American Kurobuta. The last was deliriously satisfying — juicy meat darkly crusted in coffee, tunneled with smoked scamorza cheese, and sauced with clean, glossy Madeira jus. Curious is that while other meat dishes come with a starch, the pork does not. More curious: Excepting tomato, eggplant, and mushrooms, plates here are virtually vegetable-free, and there is not a single sautéed green on the menu. So we went with an à la carte side of impeccably cooked risotto, which impressed with its stimulating balance of sweetly caramelized cubes of pear and pungent Taleggio cheese.
We were less enthralled by a main course of Florida red snapper. The two fillets of fish were fresh and crisply seared, but the snapper's mild appeal was obscured by other components on the plate — namely a sheet of pasta, sauté of calamari and tomatoes, and assertive green basil sauce.
A raw food item called "linguini of zucchini" brought a small nest of julienned squash soaked in "vegan, Genovese-style pesto" that without Parmesan to temper the herb was too one-dimensionally basil. More troubling is the "linguini" designation. The dish has nothing to do with pasta, so why not simply call it "julienne of zucchini"? And, not to beat a dead hormone-free horse, but $17 seems unfathomably high for what was, at most, one zucchini's worth of food.
Escopazzo's service is solid and smooth. The head waiter is adept at articulating the menu and specials, the staff is attentive, and the manager works the room in a quiet, unobtrusive fashion. Pino isn't around as often as he used to be, because he spends time overseeing Escopazzo Express, which premiered two years ago in the Four Seasons Hotel. His mother, Maria Pia, is more likely than he to be found on the property — usually in the kitchen, preparing the tiramisu, which might just be the Beach's best. It is presented as a puck-shape disc, meltingly tender and lifted by assertive coffee undertones. Like so much else here, it is more delicate and gossamery than the traditional but just as rewarding. And, honestly, it feels fantastic to exit an Italian restaurant with a walk rather than a waddle.