Know Matter

When it comes to eating out, I'm a trouble magnet. If there's food to be dropped, it'll be my dinner that hits the floor. If there's water to be spilled on someone's lap, my lap will be the one drenched. A reservation gets lost? That'd be mine, too.

Really, such mishaps have ceased to bother me. If that's my karma, so be it. This sort of calamity I can take. When it comes to being snubbed at a restaurant, however, I'm a bit slower to forgive. So it took a little something extra to overcome an incident that occurred two years ago when I went to review Cafe Prima Pasta, an intimate but reasonably priced Italian eatery on 71st Street in Miami Beach. At the tiny, 30-odd seat cafe (it has since expanded), my patiently waiting party was shouldered aside while more recent arrivals were seated after chatting with owner Gerardo Cea. Though we felt insulted, we ended up glad we stuck around -- the homemade pastas and down-home prices almost made us forget the snub.

When Cea opened Cafe Primola in North Miami this summer, I did my best to ward off a repetition of a performance I presumed had been born of disorganization. I waited a couple of months to give things a chance to settle down, then visited late on a Saturday evening, figuring that by then whatever crowd there was would have thinned. It hadn't -- the 40-seat cafe was enormously busy --but I was relieved to see Cea at the door taking down names for a waiting list, and another host seating patrons. We agreed to have a glass of wine at the small bar, where we hungrily ordered a bruschetta appetizer ($3.95): two slices of toast topped with tomatoes, triangles of mozzarella, and so much aromatic basil we could have worn it like perfume.

Half an hour later, the party we'd followed in the door was seated, and we could see another table for four being readied. Then an argument ensued between the hosts. Though Cea, working from his list, pointed to us, his colleague gave the table to four women who had just stepped through the door. When we asked both men about the seating arrangement, we got defensive replies: The women had been waiting longer than we had . . . the hosts had neglected to add them to the list . . . we should have spoken up sooner. Both insisted they'd never met the women; when they all reassembled for farewell embraces and kiss-kisses at meal's end, the diners must have been merely expressing their heartfelt thanks for being seated so promptly.

Needless to say, there were no hugs exchanged when we departed. Still, I'm happy to report that the lapse in the front of the house didn't in any way translate to the back. While I fault Cea's way of doing business, I can't argue with the way he runs his kitchen. As at Cafe Prima Pasta, the fare at Primola is noodle-dominated, fresh, delicious, and inexpensive.

Our complimentary basket of dense and chewy homemade dinner rolls was refilled throughout the meal, which inspired us to consume plenty of the accompanying chopped-garlic-and-olive-oil dip, a palate-numbing concoction. More garlicky olive oil coated pepperoni e caprino. Four roasted red peppers, supple but not mushy, cradled dabs of soft and creamy goat cheese. The tangy cheese worked extremely well with the sweet peppers -- a tantalizing combination. Cheese was also a lovely textural counterpoint to a dish of carpaccio described on the menu as the "Best in the USA." ($5.95). I can't speak for the entire nation, but I will say the preparation numbers among the most finely prepared carpaccios in Miami. Delicate rounds of raw filet mignon were topped with shoestrings of hard, pungent Parmesan, with cracked pepper, olive oil, and fresh-squeezed lemon aboard as perfect flavor enhancers, highlighting the tender beef rather than masking it.

A hot appetizer, fried mozzarella, was wonderful. Two wedges of the cheese were melted inside, crunchy outside, nestled in a delightfully garlic-laden marinara sauce. This dish was served so impressively and appropriately hot that cutting into it provided a steam facial.

The rest of the meal lived up to the starters. From the list of fourteen pasta dishes, we chose three. The first was a seasonal dish of zuccotti rosso, pumpkin ravioli. ($8.95). Six large sacks were stuffed with a smooth squash puree, lightly sweet. A masterful "pink" sauce -- half marinara, half cream -- cut down the pumpkin's potential to be cloying. Although the portion didn't look large, it was completely filling. We could have used a few more agnolotti pesto, though. Smaller than the ravioli, these plump rounds contained ricotta cheese and spinach and were smothered in a melodic pesto sauce, a dash of cream singing harmoniously with crushed basil, garlic, and olive oil.

The success of the ravioli and the agnolotti made a bland fettuccine Alfredo even more disappointing. The long flat pasta was springy and al dente, but the sauce needed spark. Fresh grated Parmesan and pepper and salt helped elevate it. One consistent triumph was the promptness with which the dishes were served. Pastas are tricky -- they cool rapidly, and cream sauces congeal. Primola's pastas have barely hit the plate before they're whisked to the table, steaming like a fire made with green wood.

The cafe takes its name from a type of flour (finely ground semolina) and its bread and pastas shine, but this restaurant isn't only about starch. Several chicken and veal dishes are offered, as are daily fish and seafood specials. Still, a spunky pasta side dish -- penne with marinara sauce, garlic, and strips of basil -- overshadowed vitello rollatini. ($13.95). The two sections of rolled veal were dry and stringy, while the stuffing of spinach, prosciutto, onions, pine nuts, and Parmesan was too salty. Even worse, one ingredient couldn't be distinguished from another. A flat-tasting Marsala-and-mushroom sauce contributed little vitality.

Dessert choices were limited: tiramisu or tartufo. I've so far kept my promise never to eat tiramisu again, and during our wait at the bar we'd watched the staff struggle to unwrap and slice a tartufo in half -- a process that left our sweet tooth as cold as, well, ice cream. We made do with cappuccino.

Along with similarities in pasta, prices, and preferential treatment, Primola and Prima Pasta are alike in their design: framed black-and-white photos and pen-and-ink drawings covering dark green walls, ceiling fans swinging, white linens accenting dark woods. You'd never guess this strip-mall space was once part of the Cluckers rotisserie chicken chain. (Some renovation credit is due to Primola's immediate predecessor, Caffe Buonanotte.) I just hope Cea and crew keep striving for improvement, I thought to myself as the women who'd snatched our table finished their meal and schmoozed their way out the door. No matter how nice the joint looks, it could use a little work.

Cafe Primola
13200 Biscayne Blvd, North Miami; 899-1081.
Open for lunch Monday through Thursday; dinner seven days a week. Call for hours.


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