I did not spend my childhood frolicking amid the fig trees of Calabria. I did, however, grow up on the sixth floor of a Brooklyn apartment building, where the aromas of meatballs and garlic and tomato sauce drifted upward from the Casciano household three stories below. While these olfactory memories don't qualify me as an expert on Italian cooking, they did at least teach me what great food should smell like.
Aromas are an important, if overlooked, factor in enjoyable dining. Would you want to walk into a home on Thanksgiving and not smell a roasting turkey? Of course not. In the old days restaurants would start their soups, stocks, and sauces in the morning, and keep them simmering on the stove during dining hours. Nowadays such staples are kept refrigerated, then popped into a sauté pan or microwave for heating -- not very conducive to aromatic pleasantries. Plus there simply isn't that much home cooking and baking going on in modern-day dining establishments.
At Il Fico, an Italian restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard, the tasteful dining room features an open prep area leading to a doorless kitchen in back, but the place is as odorless as water. If cooking aromas can travel three flights upward, they should be able to drift twenty feet outward -- or at the very least emanate from plates at the next table. But Il Fico's food is herbless, sizzleless, and passionless. This restaurant surely does not produce homemade stocks, and gets its farmers bread and tasty, mildly sweet, fig-flecked bread from a bakery. Desserts are likewise bought from a bakery -- judging from the insipid chocolate cake we tried, not a very good one. Cheesecake, tiramisu, and apple pie are other finishing touches, along with the "special Il Fico dessert" -- two scoops of vanilla ice cream with warm berry sauce. According to our waiter, even the chocolate soufflé is imported, "from Italy." Must be a mighty sturdy soufflé.
Il Fico Restaurant
4770 Biscayne Blvd
Open daily, 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Call 305-572-0400.
Uninspired desserts are merely the tail end of a virtual parade of lackadaisical foods that together form a blueprint for mediocre dining. There is even a slothful approach to double-checking menu spelling, as certain words are printed correctly in some spots, then repeated incorrectly in others: Bread is "bred," sauce is "sace," mushroom is "mushroos," tomato is "toamto." And sew id goze.
This same laziness applies to much of the cuisine, almost all entrées sided by bland mashed potatoes and/or steamed, thoroughly unseasoned vegetables -- broccoli, asparagus, carrots, zucchini, and yellow squash. The lack of smells, spell-checkers, and seasonings constitute just a few of the problems here. Another missing element, which is fairly common in many of our restaurants, is imagination. Here are Il Fico's appetizers: bruschetta; mussels in white wine; a salad of tomato, mozzarella, and basil; an antipasto of prosciutto, mozzarella, and marinated vegetables (eggplant, peppers, and olives); duck paté with Brie cheese (strange, but not creative); hummus with pita bread (stranger still for an Italian menu); and figs stuffed with goat cheese and fresh rosemary, which IS different, although the rosemary consisted of sprigs sticking from each of the six figs -- not a great way to get that herb's taste into the cheese.
A trio of appetizer specials -- grilled shrimp, grilled calamari, and escargot -- remained unvaried on all our visits, which is not very special. Still the shrimp did display gusto, ten small crustaceans coated with plenty of garlic and parsley. The same garlic-parsley base would have sufficed with the mussels too, but these were the puniest mollusks I've ever encountered -- they looked like beige, misshapen peas. A caring cook would never have allowed these to be served.
Not all is grim at Il Fico. Pasta courses are decent, from a robust rigatoni al ragu to an interesting, and, granted, imaginative mix of linguine with figs, walnuts, and onions in white goat cheese sauce. Two thinly pounded filets of veal scaloppine were relatively tender, a white wine sauce enhancing the delicate taste. Can't go wrong with a simply grilled skirt steak with French fries, and a boneless double breast of "rosemary chicken" was plump and juicy, with dried figs and bright orange sauce ganging up sweetly on a thin slice of prosciutto and teeny snippet of rosemary layered inside the breasts.
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Grilled salmon, grilled mahi-mahi, and catch of the day are the only seafood options, yet early on a Friday evening they were out of the mahi-mahi. I took the grilled salmon instead, which was overcooked. Curiously, the daily fish gets served with mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables, the salmon with just the vegetables, and mahi, when they have it, accompanied by only mashed. That makes as much sense as importing "soufflés" from Italy. The catch was snapper, fresh and overwhelmed with tomato sauce, capers, and what was billed as "Mediterranean herbs" -- which turned out to be parsley. Chopped parsley also decorates the rim of every entrée plate, which means you stand a better chance of having it flavor your shirt sleeve than your food.
Entrées come with a sprightly house salad (no dressing except for bottles of olive oil and low-class balsamic vinegar on the table), making the prices here fairly reasonable -- pastas from $7.95-$14.95, main courses from $12.95-$14.95. Watch out for specials, though -- the shrimp starter was $10.50, and the "market price" for snapper turned out to be $17.95. Salad or not, $30 is no bargain for two courses at an eatery of this caliber. Add a bottle of water, dessert, tax, and tip and you've got yourself a $50 dinner that pales in comparison with similarly priced restaurants like Timó and Pilar.
Service was courteous, not competent. Tables were never wiped down, plates removed too slowly, and the staff had a consistently maddening way of bringing salads in the midst of appetizers, and main courses in the midst of salads. When they weren't rushing us, they made us wait. On one occasion we sat for a considerable amount of time first for a bottle of water, and later for the check. Meanwhile the staff kept passing us by, over and over, never looking our way.
Admittedly restaurants are perceived differently by different diners. Older locals eating at Il Fico did not seem displeased with their meals, and no doubt appreciate the early bird (5:00-7:00 p.m.) salad, pasta, and dessert special for $11.95. Then again, it has been proved that at a certain age taste buds diminish, as does critical acumen. It seems I haven't yet reached those golden years.