Dining establishments tend to be busiest at night, more relaxed and inexpensive during lunch. La Loggia Ristorante & Lounge is the opposite, which can be attributed to its location across from the county courthouse in downtown Miami. If you enter the restaurant around noon, a buzz will tickle your ears as you bypass the few tables up front. It will continue to build as you file past a long bar filled with patrons putting away plates of pasta. By the time you enter the lofty, two-level dining room in back, with light streaming in through windows high up on faded, faux-Pompeii walls, you'll be privy to the sonorous chatter and clatter of a 200-seat restaurant packed with downtown workers -- including lawyers, judges, clerks, and, I presume, a fair share of the plaintiffs and defendants enjoying a hasty meal before the jury comes in. (This is the civil courthouse, not criminal.) Lunch at La Loggia pulsates with the energy of a big-city restaurant.
There really isn't much downtown competition for this solid, standard northern Italian fare -- hardly any lunch spots at all besides low-end Latin eateries, chintzy chains, Granny Feelgood's, and the always worthwhile Bali Café, an Indonesian restaurant. If alternative downtown dining options during the day are slim, at night they're practically nonexistent. This will change when blueprints for residential skyscrapers have been turned into actual buildings, but for now few live here, and there is no motivation for tourists in nearby hotels, which have their own restaurants, to venture down these desolate streets. Well, maybe one: La Loggia's three-course dinner special for $16.95 (from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. weeknights; the restaurant is closed weekends). During the day justice is served, but at night you get a steal of a deal.
Only a few basic dishes are provided here, and all are cooked to order. This means no stews, no roasted poultry or meats, no slow-baked lasagnas, manicottis, or meatballs. Pastas don't get dressed in anything more provocative than pesto, alfredo, or tomato sauce ("spicy," "light," "pink," and "with meat"). Just a few of many benefits derived from serving a small selection of uncomplicated meals:
1. Keeps labor and food costs down (translating to lower prices -- see $16.95 deal).
2. Creates a more rapid rotation of foodstuffs (which keeps things fresh).
3. Allows the kitchen to feed a whole lot of people quickly, and in consistent fashion.
Some folks, on the other hand, might wish to dine on something other than basic pasta, chicken breast, veal scaloppini, or fish fillet. For example, Italians have so many types of hams, sausages, and salamis that they raise their pigs specifically for use in such products; the animals' potential as fresh pork is considered secondary. Compelling cold cuts certainly wouldn't curb kitchen efficiency, so it's disappointing that only prosciutto and Genoa salami were available on the antipasto plate, along with formulaic accompaniments like kalamata olives, roasted peppers, grilled eggplant, and sun-dried tomatoes.
La Loggia's cuisine may be uninspired, but it is rarely insipid. At its best, in fact, the unadulterated simplicity of the food is just as Italians meant it to be. House salad was bright and tangy. Pizza Margherita boasted thin, crisp crust with a pleasing balance of tomato sauce and cheese (two other toppings offered: pepperoni, and chicken with sun-dried tomatoes). A dozen plump littleneck clams succulently satisfied too, but were hardly unadulterated -- kalamata olives, fat capers, tomatoes, garlic, and basil contributed flavor, but adding salty ingredients to inherently saline clam juice makes for regrettable broth. I ordered another bottle of water.
One of the kitchen's few creative gestures, an appetizer of crab "soufflé," was actually more like a muffin of crustless crab quiche -- lighter and duller than a crab cake, not nearly as airy as an actual soufflé, and served on arugula leaves drizzled with aptly sharp but too-sweet honey-mustard dressing. This dish succeeded only in making me wonder whether lack of culinary ambition might not sometimes be a good thing.
Same thought was reinforced with five plump rounds of pumpkin-stuffed ravioli in "butter and sage sauce," essentially lots of melted butter with a hearty infusion of that herb's fresh leaves. Browned butter would have lent an appropriately nutty flavor, which instead was inserted via a disconcertingly sweet spike of Amaretto into the pumpkin filling.
Bolognese was better. In some parts of Italy, Bologna probably being one, a person is judged by his ability to prepare a respectable rendition of this dish, meaning full meaty flavor (often a mix of pork, veal, and beef), and a noodle-clinging ragout consistency that falls halfway between liquid and solid. La Loggia clings to its uncomplicated cooking code and uses only chopped beef, simmered in properly textured, wine-tinged tomato sauce and served over fresh spaghetti.
Chicken breast is prepared three ways: Breaded and topped with fresh tomato and basil (Milanese); grilled and topped with diced tomatoes and basil; breaded and baked with tomato sauce and mozzarella (parmigiano). Veal cutlets get the parmigiano treatment too, and medallions come bathed in white-wine sauce laced with lemon juice and capers. Each entrée is accompanied by a specific pasta or potato dish, the veal plate padded with fresh spaghetti tossed in potent, basil-happy pesto sauce. Spaghetti pomodoro arrived alongside snapper Livornese, the fleshy fillet sautéed with kalamata olives, capers, onions, and fresh tomatoes. Sliced sirloin steak with arugula salad, almond-crusted salmon steak with lemon-butter, and a couple of daily specials round out the main courses.
Dinner service was well paced (and the room rather gloomy without sunlight), but at lunch we were rushed in almost comic fashion. One time our waitress placed menus on the table as if they were batons being passed in a race; then she was off and running. During one of her brief stopovers I managed to ask what soup of the day was being offered. "Shrimp bis-kay" she replied while receding into the distance. Later she'd let us know that "specialdessertofthedayislistedinsidethemenu" as she sped away.
"What'd she say?" my wife asked.
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"I think something to do with what's inside the special dessert," I answered.
On the plus side, we never had to wait long for pepper mill or parmesan.
Desserts came out quickly too, mini cannolis and a mostly mascarpone tiramisu both tasty and so fresh they seemed as made-to-order as the other foods.
This dining establishment is nearly infallible when it comes to freshness, which along with its appealing ambiance makes it a notable downtown lunch spot. Still, in a more perfect world, or at least a better restaurant city, La Loggia's proprietors would reach higher with their cuisine -- not because they needed to but because their passion for food would make anything else unthinkable. This compulsion is the difference between a good, successful restaurant and a great one.