Exorcism by Pasta

Every night at about ten o'clock, my phone rings just once, as if someone had pinged the bell with a forefinger. If I answer it, I hear only the dial tone. "Power surge," my husband suggests. But I know better, and my psychic agrees: My grandmother passed away last year, and she's been coming to check up on me ever since.

I believe in ghosts, poltergeists, doppelg„ngers. I'm fascinated by otherworldly encounters and haunted houses, the idea of past and future lives. I'm fairly convinced, for instance, that I've been a cat before, which explains my liking for fish and my aversion to getting my face wet. I'm positive that old restaurants never die. Instead they hang around and put a damper on new ones, creating the myth of the bad-luck spot. Thus I'm superstitiously reluctant to revisit places where I've had awful experiences, even when they've changed hands, names, or menus.

So when I pulled up to Buon Appetito Ristorante on Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables and realized it was the site of the former Casa Rolandi, where last year I wrote about one of the worst eating-out experiences I've ever had (food that was as cruddy as it was overpriced, service that was incomparably shoddy and rude), I was leery. And when I discovered that Rolandi's ghost was indeed hanging around -- in the form of Giuseppe Miniello, a former manager who now owns this incarnation with chef/partner Fernando Magalhaes -- I was somewhat reluctant to venture inside. But reservations had been made and guests were in tow. It was too late to turn back: I had no choice but to enter and consume a meal every bit as delicious as the last one had been atrocious.

Not only are the beam-ceiling decor, the white-linen appointments, the brick-oven open kitchen, and the old managers firmly in place, so is the very first Casa Rolandi menu -- the one that years ago established the reputation of a fine eatery.

There, however, the resemblance ends. Our waiter was so friendly, forthcoming, and knowledgeable that we instantly felt welcome; the French-accented Italian fare was so enticing that we were intrigued just by his descriptions of it. "We're going to eat a lot," we stated flatly after swooning over the specials. "Don't be surprised."

A starter of escargots in mushroom sauce over polenta, a special that evening, was a feast for the palate as well as for the eyes, sliced shiitake mushrooms interspersed with dark meaty snails, surrounding a scoop of polenta. A wine, garlic, and herb sauce complemented the pale cornmeal as well as the succulent mollusks and mushrooms.

Scamorza affumicata was a flavorful hot-cold starter, smoked mozzarella baked and served over lush arugula. A layer of Parma prosciutto atop the cheese added a mild, pleasant saltiness, while a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar provided intriguing sweetness. A bowl of crema di patate (potato soup) was even better. In theory I adore cream soups, but I'm usually disappointed by lumps of flour or cornstarch that are used as thickener, or by soup that's been boiled so long that the cream has begun to break down. Buon Appetito's version was a golden dream -- smooth and balanced between spoon-coating cream and minced potato, with a faint chicken broth base. Served at a perfect temperature, the concoction was dotted with green peas and finished with a twist of black pepper and a grate of fresh Parmesan.

Homemade pastas range from agnolotti in tomato-and-sage sauce to pappardelle tossed with wild mushrooms and demiglace to tagliolini spiked with both fresh and sun-dried tomatoes. Gnocchi, which we shared as an appetizer, was a pasta special, but it ought to be a permanent part of the menu. The potato dumplings, shaped like garlic cloves, were dressed in a stewed plum tomato sauce laced with sauteed basil leaves and a touch of cream. (Insert accolade here.)

We couldn't resist an entree portion of risotto, a dish that requires quite a bit of finesse. Here, tangy arborio rice, creamy and al dente, was blended with radicchio, red wine, and a liberal dose of Parmesan. The infusion of the wine and radicchio tinted the rice an Art Deco pink, but once we got past the unusual color, we found this risotto al radicchio to be a skillful rendition.

Stuffed pastas were tempting. Recognizing tortelloni stuffed with fontina and mascarpone cheeses from my debacle at Casa Rolandi last year, I skipped it this time around with an instinctive shudder, going instead for a seafood-heavy ravioloni del pirata. These half-dozen round ravioli, black with squid ink, were fabulous, al dente dough encasing a minced shrimp filling, and marred only slightly by a too-cool serving temperature. Rings of calamari, one jumbo shrimp, a couple of mussels, and a smattering of bay scallops pumped up the maritime theme, while a shrimp bisque sauce added fragrant tomato-cream appeal. Lots of pink sauces in this place.

Visible from the dining room, the brick oven practically spewed forth puffy pita breads brushed with olive oil (a holdover oddity from the Rolandi days), so many that we finally asked the busboy to stop bringing them. Still, they proved practical for scooping up sauces. The oven was also useful for petti di anatra all'albicocca, roasted breast of duck. The tender filet mignonlike meat was sliced and covered with a sweet, slightly thick apricot demiglace and served with an incongruous side of polenta blanketed with a marinara sauce. We asked for it medium but it arrived medium-well; regardless, the duck was juicy and free from fat.

A fillet of salmon, also done in the so-called magic oven, was more precisely baked. Flaky and with a crisp outer edge, the two-inch-high fillet was covered with an aromatic combination of chopped tomatoes, capers, black olives, garlic, and onions. Dubbed salmone provenzale, a nod to the French-Italian border, this could easily have been named salmon perfection.

Desserts, perhaps, should be rethought. Though he serves them forth with dramatic flair, Magalhaes makes only a few each day. We ordered two of the three that were offered, a bread pudding flambe in brandy sauce and a flan with caramel sauce. Both the pudding and the flan were luscious, but, in contrast to the meal, the sauces here were bitter and overly alcoholic. If our visit is any indication, diners are advised to skip the after-dinner cordial if you're going to indulge in one of these.

Or, like me, you just might start seeing (or hearing) spirits.


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