Hello, Good Buy

If restaurateurs chant the same mantra as real estate agents -- location, location, location -- then Cafe Tango is on unstable ground. The five-week-old eatery occupies a hard-to-find space on the first floor of the Bay Shore Yacht and Tennis Club, an apartment building on Harbor Island's West Drive in the postage-stamp-size municipality of North Bay Village. Equal amounts of determination and 79th Street Causeway know-how might get you there. Directions from host-owner Marta Ramirez are a smarter bet.

If restaurants survive according to the strictures of capitalism -- competition within an open market -- then Cafe Tango is in trouble. With the exception of a grocery store, the restaurant is the only source of food on this island. While that may seem to be a boon, keep in mind that East-West Drive is no Miracle Mile, where even mediocre restaurants can prosper simply by enticing foot traffic or handling overflow from their more successful neighbors. With no competition, Cafe Tango is solely a destination spot, which means it has to be that good.

Fortunately, it is. Chef-owner Jose Ramirez and his wife Marta, who have been in the food business for more than two decades, turn out homemade Italian and Argentinean dishes that are not only that good, but that inexpensive, too.

The bargains began with a fourteen-inch fugazza pizza ($8.45), a pizza bianca (no tomato sauce) layered with Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses, topped with thinly sliced, sweet white onions, a brush of olive oil, and a dusting of fresh oregano. (For the traditionalist, a side dish of chunky tomato pizza sauce cuts the cheese with a bright tang.) The crust, light, crunchy, and buttery, captured our attention enough to ask about it. No butter in the dough, replied Marta Ramirez; not even olive oil. The secret is in the multiple risings, a time-consuming practice that allows lots of air to permeate.

Though the pizza would have been enough to serve as a starter for our party of four, we weren't about to stop there. Grilled provoleta was another ample pleasure, a half-inch-thick round of imported provolone griddled until it spreads out around the edges, then sprinkled with herbs and slivers of sun-dried tomatoes. The just-melted cheese is perfect with the homemade cheese-and-herb and seven-grain bread that fills the basket on the table.

We washed down all this richness with a bottle of San Marco cabernet sauvignon (sixteen dollars), a Chilean wine that was so fresh and fruity that we followed it up with the same vineyard's chardonnay (same price). Perhaps because Cafe Tango only recently received its wine-and-beer license, staffers are still untrained in this area. They also speak very little English; confused by our waitress's handwritten list, we relied on the owner's recommendation.

The chardonnay went beautifully with a crisp "chicken pie," a delicacy more appropriately called an empanada. Ground chicken was spiced with capers and the occasional green olive to good effect, and the crust exhibited a minimum of grease. Chicken gumbo, the soup of the day, seemed misplaced among the Argentinean and Italian dishes. The savory broth contained rice, tomato, peppers, shredded chicken, and okra (and probably would have benefited from more of this last ingredient).

Salads sounded enticing but ended up disappointing. Mixed greens with tomato slices and red onions was too plain, merely a hefty portion of chopped romaine served with a homemade caesar-type dressing on the side. The same base held up a large scoop of marinated calamari salad, which tasted a little too fishy to enjoy. A mix of roasted peppers and eggplant, which featured a generous layer of the vegetables over greens, was the third less-than-stellar salad. Not even a burst of garlic and cheese from the dressing was enough to offset the mushiness of the eggplant or the unpleasant softness of the peppers.

Homemade whole-wheat pasta more than made up for any goofs with the greens. Springy linguine was topped with a saute of tender chicken breast meat, mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes. An intriguing touch of cheese added pungency; aged imported Argentine Parmesan Romano is Jose Ramirez's cheese of choice, and he uses it to distinction. A delicious penne vodka, fresh tomatoes and shallots sauteed with cream and vodka, evoked that very evident, almost nutmeglike flavor, as well. The penne had been thrown into the pan and mixed with the sauce, an Italian practice that ensures all the pasta is thoroughly coated.

Creamy pecorino risotto is offered as a side dish option that accompanies main courses, so those who order grilled meats and poultry will get an idea of Ramirez's wonderful touch. He and his wife left Argentina for Boston 24 years ago; perhaps the extended absence from South America accounts for the chef's uneven efforts at the grill. Ordered medium-rare, churrasco was served charred, tough and juiceless. Half a grilled free-range chicken (all meat and poultry are touted as free-range cuts) fared better. Though the meat was a bit too dry, the skin was pleasingly crisp, and the intense lemon-and-garlic sauce in which the bird had been marinated and dressed after preparation was a tart treat.

Desserts are a combination of Italian and South American specialties, but the waitress's lack of communication skills limited our selection to a homemade square of tiramisu. (Also included on the list of Ramirez-baked goodies are flan and chaja a traditional Argentinean peach, caramel, and merengue concoction.) We were also served complimentary glasses of Tio Paco, an aged Argentine white wine with a bite similar to Italian grappa.

City ordinances prevent the owners from posting a sign where East-West Drive crosses the 79th Street Causeway. But in the estimable 79th Street tradition of packed-to-the-rafters predecessors Oggi Cafe and Cafe Prima Pasta, Cafe Tango is worth the hunt. And if you visit soon, you may not have to wait in line.

Side Dish
On the subject of tiramisu... Here's a new torture for us -- the espresso-infused mascarpone-and-ladyfingers concoction is now a liqueur. Never a huge fan of the stuff, I've sampled more tiramisu in the past few years than any other pastry. I refuse to drink it, too. And fortunately, I may never have the oppportunity. The big chain stores such as Gulf, Crown, Checkers, and Walgreens don't carry it. Even the trendy stores that do sell it are having trouble keeping it in stock. Proprietors Ricardo and Alla of the new liquor store-bar-cafe Niva (643 Washington Ave., South Beach) tell me it's practically impossible to get.

Last year's hot item, Godiva liqueur ($24.99), is all over the shelves, boxed with two matching glasses. How sweet. But then, this is what I love about the holidays A the packaging. Liquor gift sets galore. This year Goldschlager ($12.99), which includes a handblown crystal "candelabra" shot glass, and Courvoisier ($21.99), whose box lid is decorated with a cannon made from a miniature bottle of the cognac, number among the more interesting presents for the boozer in your life. You can also buy Bailey's Irish Cream ($17.99) in a decorative tin that's shaped like a churn; Bacardi black rum ($11.99) with a can of Borden eggnog; Fundador brandy ($14.99) with three Garcia y Vega cigars; B&B liqueur ($20.99) with jars of Paradigm brand "Haute Fudge Sauce" and "Raspberry Sauce"; and Martini & Rossi Asti ($10.99) with six Perugina chocolates. And to help you forget A I mean celebrate A New Year's Eve, both Cook's ($8.00) and Cordon Negro Freixenet ($13.89) are offering two-bottle gift sets. Tempting, I know. Personally, I'd go for the Freixenet. Not only am I sure how to pronounce it, a Freixenet Book of Toasts and Graces is included. Free! Yup, that holiday spirit is in the air.


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