Family Planning

A friend recently filled me in about the oily origins of bruschetta. It seems that official olive oil tasters roaming the Umbria region of central Italy years ago were getting a little nauseated dipping directly into huge vats of the pungent stuff, so they resorted to drizzling it onto pieces of bread. Knowing a good thing when they tasted it (and, being Italian, completely unable to stop themselves from culinary experimentation), the oil connoisseurs soon began looking for variations on the bread and oil theme, testing a panoply of possibilities. Before long the bread was being toasted and covered with cheese, sliced vegetables, skinless-seedless tomato cubes, basil, touches of garlic, and other spices, with the concoction rivaling the oil itself in gastronomical importance. Ecco! A new food was born.

Roberto Legrand, chef-proprietor of Spiga in Miami Beach, is not originally from Umbria, but much of that and other Italian regions took root in his soul while he lived in Italy several years ago. He has since become a master of bruschetta himself, capable of producing more than 250 permutations of the simple starter dish.

"It's a great way to begin a meal, a light warmup for the palate," notes Legrand, speaking in a polyglot's offbeat accent that reflects the mix of influences you'll find at his restaurant: heat from Brazil, where Legrand was born; sophistication from Milan, where he studied; languor from Venice, where he worked for a time at Harry's Bar & Grill; and a dash of speed from the Big Apple, where he plied his trade at trendy Bice.

Spiga is situated in the eye of the South Beach social/commercial hurricane, and like a storm's center, the location offers a surprising tranquillity (suffice it to say that we found parking right out front at 8:00 p.m.). With Lincoln Road directly to the north, Washington Avenue to the west, and Ocean Drive to the east, the 1228 Collins Ave. address has a quiet-neighborhood feel. The restaurant's home is the Impala Hotel, a soothing and stylish place with burbling fountains and gorgeous guest rooms.

Candlelit tables on the terrace (too hot for most summer diners) promise a serene interior as well, but once you're inside South Beach energy takes over. The Saturnia marble floors, although classy and beautiful, offer no buffer for the decibels in the intimate ten-table space. Wooden chairs scrape over stone; tall models hover around the six-stool wooden bar at center stage, chatting in brash, youthful voices; and the waitstaff call out to each other and guests alike in warm, strong tones, as if they were family welcoming you into the kitchen.

"Everybody's treated like family here," Legrand says proudly. Many customers routinely accompany him back to the kitchen to help supervise the preparation of their own plates. Legrand observes, "Spiga is a place where everyone feels at home."

Spiga is also a place where women in groups smoke cigars -- big cigars. And other women smoke their cigarettes in black lacquered holders. A family restaurant, perhaps, but not exactly the Cheesecake Factory. "Family" here has perhaps a wider context that Rush Limbaugh would feel comfortable with, but one that makes for a quintessentially democratic dining experience. If the more, um, colorful aspects of the South Beach scene make you queasy, Spiga is not for you.

The waitstaff is as multinational as the owner's accent. Our server, a preternaturally good-looking young German, was palpably excited at the thought of the upcoming United States-Germany match in the World Cup. And yet he managed to make us feel accepted and cared for, regardless of the fact that we would most likely be rooting for the "wrong" team. He also delivered a surprisingly eloquent discourse on the sociological impact of the Eurodollar on the collective psyche of the German people. And then he quickly and expertly fixed our table, which was a bit wobbly. All of this before the first course. Impressive.

When the first course arrived, we were also impressed -- at least for the most part. The bruschetta, which comes unbidden (and free) at the beginning of each meal, was crisp and light. Although it was just one of the many variations we might have been served, we can assume that they would all be as delightful. Carpaccio di manzo, thinly sliced raw beef lightly glazed with olive oil and lemon, was a big hit, even with one of our party who had never before thought of thinly sliced raw beef as edible. A bed of red oak greens beneath the beef was equally edible, as were capers and rough-shredded Parmesan. In another appetizer, however, asparagi alla parmigiana, the cheese and oil dressing seemed a bit too heavy, detracting from the delectable (and perfectly cooked) thick green spears themselves.

The caesar salad arrived in an extra creamy yet surprisingly untangy dressing. Only by including a piece of anchovy with each mouthful was the satisfying caesar "bite" achieved. And the lentil soup lacked a certain hardiness one would associate with Italian country fare. The spices were just right, but they floated in a watery medium, not something you'd imagine a Florentine construction worker dipping his bread into at lunch.

The pastas are the centerpiece of the menu here, and rightfully so. Not content with the simple homemade variety of noodles manufactured by machines and found at most decent Italian eateries, Legrand and his chef de cuisine Saele Cantoni (a co-worker in Italy whom he recruited after opening Spiga two and a half years ago) create handmade works of noodle art that received unanimous accolades in every dish we sampled. The linguini con aglio, olio, e spinaci was excellent, with big slivers of garlic in a sea of tender spinach. The fresh pasta, as in all the dishes, was taken from sheets hand-turned that morning, and the attention to detail rewards the palate. Ravioli too is taken to another level here. The special version we tried, with crab stuffing, scallions, and an exquisitely light sauce, was divine.

When asked how the pappardelle al telefono got its name, our waiter replied, "There is no reason." Pappardelle is shaped like a tube, not a cellular Motorola. Even if the name is meaningless, the dish itself was flawless, with just the right amount of creaminess to the tomato-mozzarella sauce.

The main courses, though, fell somewhat short of expectations. My father, who joined us one evening, eagerly anticipated the arrival of the saltimbocca alla romana con vino bianco. As a child growing up in the United States during the Depression, he was served tasteless polenta for weeks on end by his Italian parents. The mere promise of this princely veal dish, which as the name implies is supposed to "jump into your mouth," got him salivating back then, as it still does today. But this veal was a little tough, and even the prosciutto seemed uncharacteristically chewy. Instead of jumping into the mouth, it languished on the plate.

The dentice al vino bianco, red snapper in white wine sauce, was better. Stuffed with savory rosemary and served in a light sauce, the snapper flaunted all the trappings of a top-shelf fish dish. In spite of its juices, the flesh was still a little on the dry side and was ultimately disappointing.

Wine was not poured for us consistently during dinner, perhaps because we'd ordered a carafe of the house red ($17). But that was made up for by the wine itself, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, a favorite not commonly offered in a carafe.

Vegetables and side dishes, especially the spinach, were tasty, but we were truly floored by dessert. Each is homemade with as much regard as the pastas, and it shows. The mango mousse, tiramisu, and passion fruit torte were all distinctive and could hold their own on the dessert cart at any restaurant. And -- a surprise at an Italian restaurant -- Spiga serves what can only be described as the best flan on the face of the Earth. I call it caramelized bliss, and on two separate visits everyone at the table agreed with me, so much so that we had to get to the bottom of this improbable delicacy.

Although Spiga calls it Italian flan on the menu, it's not really flan but rather an Italian version of it (panna al forno), and it's worthy of an ode by Dante Alighieri. Make sure to cut crosswise into its gelatinous body so you get an even tasting of the light and dark portions. And scoop up three or four of the amaretto "cooks," as Legrand called them, sprinkled liberally on top (they look and taste like pine nuts). Add a little caramel sauce and you'll give your mouth a culinary version of its first kiss -- indescribable, and it leaves you wanting more.

As we were making our way out of the restaurant, so was Legrand, a plastic to-go bag in hand. He was making a personal delivery. "I'd do the same for you," he said, and I believed him. He truly cares about his customers, and he does indeed create a family atmosphere in a part of town not known for that particular quality. On a recent Saturday, for instance, he hosted a baby shower. The soon-to-be-born was his own first child, a daughter.

Birthplace too of 250 bruschettas, truly superb pastas, and sublime desserts, Spiga really is a family place, just a slightly offbeat one, thank God. It's a favored spot among those in the know, and with a little tweaking of the entrees, it should become even more popular. Deservedly so.

1228 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 305-534-0079. Dinner Sunday to Thursday from 6:00 to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday until midnight. Lunch on weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Carpaccio di manzo
Caesar salad
Pappardelle al telefono
Dentice al vino bianco
Italian flan


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