Fans, by definition, are enthusiastic admirers of someone or something, ardent in their appreciation. You'd think they'd be easy to please, more willing to forgive small lapses than those who are indifferent. But I've found some fans' expectations to be so high that they're often the harshest critics of all: Witness the backlash against Don Shula this past season. So I subjected Bay Harbor Islands's four-month-old Italian restaurant Caffe Da Vinci to the toughest test -- I took an Oggi Caffe devotee there for dinner.
Okay, so I stacked the deck a little bit. I knew from the outset that Eloy Roy, the man responsible for Oggi's consistent output of terrific handmade pasta, is a part owner of the 60-seat Da Vinci. But I also knew that Roy, in his attempt to run a second establishment in this city, has made some regrettable business decisions, investing in the short-lived Vecchia Cucina and the also ephemeral Oggi II. Whether Da Vinci would mimic Roy's 79th Street Causeway success or his subsequent Miami Beach failures would depend as heavily on the quality of his partners as on the quality of his pasta.
Fortunately for Roy and his Oggi partner/manager Alex Portela, who were looking for a third to join forces in Da Vinci, maitre d' Paolo Retani was out of a job. (Retani lost his managerial post at Key Biscayne's Linda B.'s Steak House when owner Linda Brandino and her husband Stefano Brandino were busted last summer on money-laundering charges.) The association between the trio goes back to Caffe Abbracci circa 1990: Retani charmed the whole of Coral Gables as manager; Portela trained as assistant manager and eventually took over when Retani moved to Caffe Baci in 1992; and Roy delivered his fresh pastas daily. Another interesting if somewhat ironic historical note: Portela also worked at the well-regarded Buccione in Coconut Grove before owner Pietro Venezia allegedly murdered a tax collector.
The partners' combined karma could have doomed Da Vinci from the start. Instead, their mutual experience has elevated the eatery from just another pale Oggi imitation to one of the winningest operations in the city. If Da Vinci were a football team, I'd be its cheerleader.
Taking over the former Cafe Gisela on Kane Concourse, the owners covered the linoleum floor with carpet and hung the Venetian-yellow brick walls with dozens of Leonardo reproductions. Roy's father, a carpenter, erected wood partitions, creating a more intimate eating atmosphere.
Prepared by executive chef Juan Ravelo, the fare is reinvented but still familiar Oggi: the crusty pull-apart bread served (despite the upscaling) with wax-paper-encased butter pats; the house salad, a bed of crunchy chopped romaine layered with sliced tomatoes and onions, a few black and green olives, and a deliciously tangy champagne vinaigrette; the signature agnolotti rosa, plump with rich ricotta and assertive bits of spinach, brushed with a chunky pink tomato-cream sauce.
I broke from tradition, sampling the insalata del pittore, a blend of radicchio and arugula. Chopped tomatoes added juicy flavor to the fresh and colorful bitter lettuces, but the billed dressing, a raspberry vinaigrette, turned out to be all oil. We fared better with a hot starter. Previous visits had netted us a superb fried mozzarella appetizer, triangles of the gooey cheese scattered with anchovies and bathed in marinara sauce; the kitchen has recently replaced this with a slightly messier but just as tasty mozzarella involtini. Two hefty chunks of the fresh cheese were wrapped with a transparent slice of eggplant and a smoky segment of prosciutto, then grilled. A dollop of olive oil and balsamic vinegar finished the rolls.
More mozzarella smothered the veal Parmesan, an immense butterfly we admired for its size as well as for its tangy sauce. We also appreciated the breading, which stood away from the meat just slightly, like the coating on a good Wiener schnitzel. But we found the meat a little too dry and somewhat tough. Garnishes of pan-fried white potatoes and steamed buttered broccoli were prettily presented.
The list of pasta dishes is so alluring that it's tempting to order one as an appetizer and enjoy another as an entree, forgoing the meat course entirely. We couldn't resist gnocchi in a pesto-cream sauce. The potato-and-flour dumplings were superb, satiny and light. The basil in the pesto sauce retained its crispness despite the addition of cream, and garlic and Parmesan notes both stood out well.
Any other restaurant would have problems living up to the promise of the gnocchi, but Da Vinci knows how to spoil its clients. Pappardelle primaverili was ribbons of inch-wide noodles coiling like just-pulled taffy under grilled vegetables A an assortment of eggplant, squash, broccoli, and tomatoes A that nestled in a robust olive-oil-and-garlic sauce. Similar in theory, capellini alle melanzane comprised angel hair pasta and a dice of fresh tomatoes and eggplant tossed with a touch of cheese. Browned slivers of garlic and verdant basil lent their distinctive flavors to the mild noodles.
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The most memorable pasta was a special that evening, black linguine tossed with seafood and a fra diavolo sauce. The supple squid-ink linguine was more like fettuccine, a perfect partner for the baby calamari that crackled between the teeth like al dente noodles. Rings of white body-meat squid and a pair each of mussels, clams, and shrimp were all delectable, but the crowning glory was half a Maine lobster, succulent and butter-rich once freed from the shell A no small task given the messy plethora of spicy tomato sauce. Though specials like the seafood linguine and a veal chop run about twenty dollars, they're worth it. If you've come to Da Vinci for these reasonably priced pasta dishes and the limited but affordably priced list of Italian wines, be sure to ask your server how much they cost.
Service was as outstanding as the pasta. No one hovered. But we had only to open our mouths and begin, "This gnocchi would be great with . . . " when our waiter would appear, finishing our sentence: " . . . some fresh ground pepper?" We put his omnipresence to the test when a less-expensive special that evening, a fillet of snapper topped with a lemony butter-caper sauce, appeared. The delicate sauce gracefully complemented the sweet-fleshed snapper, which had been pan-fried to the crisp finish only a very hot skillet can produce. But a promised dish of noodles didn't show up with it. We stopped a busboy. "We're missing . . . " The waiter materialized: " . . . a side of pasta? I have informed the chef," he said, and served the bowl of spaghetti with olive oil and slices of sauteed garlic a minute later. (Here, unfortunately, the garlic had been browned a bit too much, yielding a telltale bitterness.)
Presented on plates decorated with chocolate swirls, desserts were incomparable. A wedge of silky chocolate mousse cake was just barely edged out by a meringue cake, crumbly egg-white wafers napped with thick whipped cream. You should be wary, though, of the wobbly nature of the meringue -- as it was being delivered, a fragile wafer tumbled like Humpty Dumpty into the lap of one of my guests.
I've had a special fondness for Oggi since I first wrote about it three years ago. I've been pleased to watch the restaurant grow from a busy pasta-delivery service into an ultracasual -- and ultracrowded -- no-frills trattoria, and then into a full-fledged Italian restaurant with an expanded menu and linens on the tables. I've rooted for Eloy Roy's determined efforts to duplicate his brilliant accidental brainchild, even when I thought those attempts were misguided. And I'm delighted, finally, to see that Da Vinci doesn't merely equal Oggi, it's an evolutionary advancement: a roomier, more elegant dining room, an unhurried staff, even a policy to accept reservations! (The wait at Oggi is legendary.) For Roy and his partners, the third time isn't only charmed. It's charming.