Grazie for Grazie
If an Israeli and a Honduran were to open a restaurant together, what kind of cuisine would they serve? If you answered hummus in coconut shells or gefilte fish ceviche, nice try. But the correct answer is Italian -- or at least that's the case with Moshe Petel and Spurgeon Solomon, who launched their Grazie Café in 1997 at Pinecrest's Suniland Plaza. Makes more sense when you consider that both were long-time waiters at South Beach's venerable Osteria del Teatro, picking up the art of fine Italian service from the local master of hospitality, Dino Pirola. Why they named the place Grazie Café is less apparent, but obviously "Moshe and Spurgeon's Italian Cuisine"just wouldn't do.
The Pinecrest Grazie closed its doors this past November, just as carpenters were securing the final cherry-wood panels that would form the visual foundation of the handsome new Grazie Italian Cuisine on South Beach. The restaurant opened in January on the corner of Washington Avenue and Seventh Street, the previous site of an Italian restaurant (Follia) and a pioneering South Beach nightspot, the Island Club. The 75-seat dining room is lushly comfortable with those warm wood walls, soft lights emanating an orange-hued glow, and wine bottles individually spotlighted in displays around the room; the wine list, dominated by American and Italian selections, includes an addendum of special "cellar selections" highlighting heralded vintners. This place has a full bar too, which the old Grazie did not.
Grazie's owners apparently learned their lessons from Dino quite well. Both partners work the room in gracious fashion, making certain customers receive personal attention. When the restaurant fills to capacity, which already is the case on weekends, Moshe and Spurgeon will take orders, deliver plates, and do whatever is necessary to ensure a smooth flow. Then again, they usually don't have to, as there are plenty of workers on the floor -- well-groomed and well trained. Service is just fine. I say this despite one occasion when our waiter returned from the kitchen to regretfully inform me that the whole chicken scarparello I had ordered wasn't available, then proceeded to practically henpeck me into substituting chicken breast with the same accompaniments. "No thanks," I said. "I think I'll go with veal scaloppini with wild mushrooms in red-wine sauce." He let me know they could make this too, using chicken breast, and proceeded to reel off a few other poultry ideas -- chicken Milanesa, chicken rolatini. "No, I'll have the veal," I insisted. At least it can be said his persistence was in the name of trying to be accommodating. Grazie cares.
Sliced, toasted rounds of dinner bread were not especially impressive but turned downright zippy when dipped into pesto oil poured by the waiter for just that purpose. The toasts also worked well with an antipasti platter: three little discs of sopressata salami, a single slice of velvety prosciutto, two cubes apiece of fontina and parmigiano reggiano cheeses, and a mélange of roasted red and yellow peppers, capers, and black olives all zestfully dressed in fruity olive oil and lemon juice. More diminutive than most antipasti plates, the ingredients nonetheless exuded quality. So did crespelli, a delicate pesto-flavored crêpe replete with ricotta and fontina cheeses, spinach, and sun-dried tomato in a pool of unassuming pink tomato sauce.
Grazie's menu is limited, with pastas and a few seafood, chicken, and veal dishes constituting the basis for most entrées (the only way to get beef is to hope it crops up as one of the few nightly specials, as in beef tenderloin capped with gorgonzola). I was pleasantly surprised to see John Dory offered -- if you're only going to feature a couple of fish, the delicate white Dory, a staple of Mediterranean diets and one of a handful of fish permitted in authentic bouillabaisse, is a good one to choose. Unfortunately the story behind this Dory is that it was really tilapia, which our waiter described as "the American equivalent." I never heard that one before, probably because it's not true; if anything, the porgy would be John's closest stateside relative. False advertising aside, the hefty fillet was sweet, fleshy, and absolutely succulent, subtly cradled in a white-wine-and-caper sauce. The veal dish (substitute for my missing chicken) turned out decently, a pair of very thin, tender scaloppini sporting a smattering of shiitake mushroom slices and a red-wine sauce that was flavorful, if too clumpy and clumsily textured.
All nonpasta entrées arrive with a small scoop of mashed potatoes, a piped swirl of extremely creamy carrot purée, and vegetable du jour -- once a sauté of julienned squash perked up with red peppers and onions, another time bright-green haricot verts gently sautéed with shallots. Grazie graces the dinner tables with sensibly portioned meals at reasonable prices: appetizers $5 to $12, pastas $13 to $19, entrées $17 to $28.
Fettuccine alla carbonara brought a skimpy tangle of supple noodles in pink sauce, with peas and square nuggets of fatless pancetta (didn't know there was such a thing). The traditional carbonara is an eggy affair, with cream, bacon, onion, parmesan cheese (and oftentimes peas and sage) producing gloriously messy tastes. This prissy tomato-cream version was tasty, but not carbonara. As for the parsimonious portion -- it's apropos in the context of pasta being a second course between starter and entrée, though I wonder how many people still use their noodles this way.
Desserts come from the same checklist used by countless other restaurants. Chocolate volcano "with melting center" and vanilla ice cream? Check. Cheesecake of the day/week? Check. Flourless chocolate cake? Check. Tiramisu? Do you really need to ask? I do admit the last two were both pretty darn good, the chocolate wedge densely fudgy and topped with white chocolate shavings and freshly whipped cream, the textbook tiramisu spongy-soft and possessing just the right balance of cake, coffee, marsala, and mascarpone.
I finally caught up with that elusive chicken scarparello on a subsequent visit. My instinct that this would be the most compelling item on the menu was strongly affirmed upon the waiter trying to dissuade me from ordering it -- on the grounds that it takes up to 25 minutes to prepare, thus potentially setting back the timing on my companions' dinners. I interpreted this as meaning the kitchen would have to do some real cooking. And they did, the quartered bird bursting with the roasted flavors of Italian sausage, cherry peppers, rosemary, and garlic in a robust red-wine sauce.
Excepting this sole, soulful chicken, my bone of contention with Grazie, and others of its ilk, is the lack of bone in its cooking: No stocks made from bones, no meat clinging to bones, no bones bobbing from a bubbling osso buco. Basic pastas, sautéed chicken breasts, and scaloppini of veal are fine, but if I want a meal-in-minutes, I can cook one up at home. In minutes. Part of a restaurant's allure comes in presenting dinners you can't easily duplicate on your own stove, or just don't have the time to. It's true that many Italian dishes, particularly pastas, are based on simple recipes, but that doesn't mean they have to be put together quicker than a Big Mac. Italy, after all, gave birth to the slow-food movement. It's Italian cars that are supposed to go fast. Still Grazie's cuisine is as lean and streamlined as a Maserati, which, within the context of a romantic room and doting service, should have residents of the restaurant's new neighborhood saying, "Grazie."
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