Grace and Bounty

I'm too spooked to jog around town any more, and it's not because I ran past Versace's house mere minutes before he was murdered. (By the time I reached the police station a few blocks away, the news cameras were already setting up.) I can accept the random Andrew Cunanan. A sociopath has the predictability of a tornado; as long as you take reasonable, everyday precautions, your chances of being fatally hurt by one are purely a matter of accident. Fate.

What I can't deal with are Miami drivers. They're predictable in their unpredictability too, but also in the fact that as a group they're careless, always in a hurry, and unschooled in the rights of pedestrians. In this state, people aren't traffic enough to yield to. I've been almost mowed over so many times while crossing the street -- legally, with the permission of a green light, not jaywalking -- that I finally vowed to give my running shoes a rest and get my exercise at the gym. All of which would have worked out fine, except that in order to get to that treadmill, I have to negotiate an intersection.

This situation is somewhat analogous to eating out in Miami. A busy restaurant here, dominated by harried staff going in all directions, can seem at times awfully like a major intersection -- with the diner getting lost in the shuffle. While being seated or on my way to the restroom, I've had to jump out of the way of single-minded, tray-bearing servers as often as I've had to elude determined drivers.

Of course, being slapped upside the head with spaghetti is a mite tastier than biting down on a chrome fender. But the problem is, I think, similar: Like our drivers, local waitstaffs have not been properly trained in the art of courtesy. Speed and destination are important, sure -- the customer wants the food, the server wants the tip, and then they both want to move on -- but not at the expense of safety and comfort. Just as reckless drivers who ignore pedestrians should be sent to traffic school, heedless waiters who believe delivering the goods is about all there is to the art of serving should be sent to study at the new Italian restaurant Grazie Cafe.

The restaurant, open since the first week of July and located in a Pinecrest strip mall that also houses the recently incorporated town's city hall and police department, gets the green light in traffic management. Skillfully maneuvering between the 40 seats, the customers waiting for tables, and the soldiers in their own army, all of which tax the small mustard-hued dining room, the waitstaff is attentive to the point of hovering. Our server fussed over the linguine with mussels, fresh tomatoes, and basil he served us, removing the meat from the shells tableside, then tossing the long noodles so thoroughly that my husband eventually asked whether he intended to feed it to us too.

But even when the catering is oversolicitous, it's a welcome change from the slapdash of South Beach and the self-importance of Coral Gables. That's what they intended, Israeli owner Moshe Petel told me over the phone. He and his Honduran partner Spurgeon Solomon searched for two years for the right showcase for their blend of upper-class service and middle-class prices. They found it just off South Dixie Highway, in the former home of Di Napoli.

The two had an edge on success. Between them, they have fourteen years of experience waiting tables at the award-winning Osteria del Teatro, one of the best Italian restaurants in the county. Their attention to detail is such that they've even positioned the wine rack for maximum airflow. (Though the wine list itself, comprising only a few ordinary labels such as Mondavi and Beringer, could use improvement.)

Petel says he chose Italian cuisine because "Middle Eastern isn't as popular." I beg to differ -- I'd love to see more of that light and flavorful fare around, particularly in upscale settings. But while I may argue with the reasoning, I can't argue with the results. We were completely taken with the light, fresh sauces, delicious pastas, and sumptuous, well-prepared meat dishes.

Cold starters include marinated shrimp tossed with watercress, and baby spinach salad with portobello mushrooms and walnut oil vinaigrette, in addition to the typical caesar salad, mozzarella and tomato plate, and bruschetta. A mesclun salad was another delightful way to begin the meal. A toss of baby greens was enhanced with citrusy lemon vinaigrette. Pitted black olives and sheets of grana cheese sharpened the appetizing picture.

We were also taken with the zuppa del giorno, a smoked tomato concoction. Smooth as tomato juice, piping hot, and not the least bit tempered by cream, this puree was a heavenly introduction to the list of hot appetizers, which number among them a black mussel soup, veal carpaccio topped with melted Fontina cheese, and grilled shrimp with capers. Fried mozzarella may sound mundane by comparison, but it was an exceptional preparation: We're not talking rubbery TGI Friday's sticks here. Two balls of the fresh mozzarella, soft and mild, were flattened and coated lightly with bread crumbs, then deep-fried and served with a tangy marinara sauce that was the perfect contrast to the just-gooey cheese.

The dozen or so pastas all come in under the fifteen-dollar mark and are generous enough to make a meal of, especially when paired with soup or salad. The aforementioned linguine and mussels was wonderful, the rich shellfish bellies a textural marvel against slippery diced and sauteed tomatoes and al dente noodles. Black ink ravioli was equally superb. Stuffed with minced crab and shrimp, the eight ravioli were napped with a creamy lobster sauce, evoking the shores of, well, Italy -- by way of Maine.

The only pasta we didn't care for was a special that evening, a homemade spinach taglierini. The long, flat noodles, much like linguine, were a beautiful emerald color but far too mushy. Diced portobello mushrooms gave the starch some meat, but threads of fresh basil completely overwhelmed the tomato sauce.

As if Grazie Cafe were Osteria del Teatro, the waiter will run down such a list of specials you'll have to ask for a repeat performance -- they all sound great, and besides, it's fun to watch the memory working. Unless of course you're listening for something in particular, at which point you can just yell, "Stop! I'll have that." Which is exactly what I did when our server got to osso bucco. I was presented with quite the dilemma here, though: Did I want my stewed veal shank over risotto or polenta, both of which I love? I was greatly satisfied with my decision. Two triangles of grilled polenta were smothered with a slow-cooked sauce of tomatoes, onions, carrots, and celery. And as I'd anticipated, the meat on the inches-thick shank fell from the bone in steaming, aromatic hunks. As easily, one might say, as a jogger rolls off a windshield.

The printed menu yields a nice array of grilled poultry, veal, lamb, and fish. But none of them sounded all that exciting next to the specials. One example from the menu, the pollo alla capricciosa, seemed to confirm that suspicion. The boneless chicken breast had been pounded, breaded, and deep-fried, and the clean white meat was bursting with juice. But the preparation was rather plain, made even more so by the fact that the topping, a marinated mixture of diced mozzarella and tomatoes, was inexplicably minus the mozzarella. Side dishes of crisp roasted potatoes and a julienned saute of carrots, peppers, and squash were colorful but ordinary.

A slice of homemade apple strudel for dessert was a non sequitur but enjoyable all the same, the dense apple filling chock full of raisins and cinnamon. Grazie also unveiled a new sweet the night we visited, a flourless chocolate cake of which the waiter was so inordinately proud that we wondered if he had baked it himself. In fact, the rich cake was too soft, slightly melted, but the fudgy flavor was fabulous.

A terrific meal and great service might have elicited some well-deserved effusiveness on my part. But in the end, all Petel and Solomon really want is the same thing a courteous driver wants: a wave of acknowledgment or a nod of appreciation, a murmured "Grazie." A simple price to pay for dining -- or jogging -- in comfort.

Grazie Cafe
11523 S Dixie Hwy, Pinecrest; 232-5533. Lunch Monday -- Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; dinner nightly from 5:30 to 11:00 p.m.

Mesclun salad
Fried mozzarella
Seafood ravioli
Osso bucco


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