Meatballs For a Bear Market

"Little man felt very bad/One meat ball was all he had/And in his dreams he hears that call/'Ya gets no bread with one meat ball.'"

--"One Meat Ball," Depression-era song written by Louis Singer & Hy Zaret.

I'm not saying our economy is going to stay down in the dumpster for as long as, say, the length of a presidency, but in case it does, perhaps it's time to cancel those reservations at L'Escalier and consider some eateries more in tune with life in the slow lane. Stop whimpering, tighten your belts, and listen up: Meatballs are $1 apiece at Laurenzo's Café, and you get a chunk of fresh Italian bread with every order (butter pats are an extra nickel).


Laurenzo's Caf

16385 W Dixie Hwy, North Miami Beach

305-945-6381. Open daily, Monday through Friday 11:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Saturday 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Sunday 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Spaghetti and meatballs blanketed with hearty tomato sauce is $2.75, as are single pieces of chicken rollatini and chicken Florentine. "Large" chef and Greek salads are twice that price, but the "small" portions are generously sized and just $2.95; the creamy garlic dressing is very tasty. A giant, I mean easily four-inch-high wedge of eggplant parmesan, is $5, as are most of the steam-table items: lasagna, cheese-stuffed shells, cheese-stuffed ravioli, breaded and fried tilapia, and chicken cacciatore. (Don't be surprised if some of the foods I'm mentioning aren't around when you get here, as the menu changes every Thursday.)

How good is this food? Well, it's not Maine lobster over chanterelle-and-champagne risotto, but hopefully you've got some photos to remind you of those days. The food is as rewarding as your ability to differentiate among steam-table items -- and let's hope that's better than your deftness in picking stocks. In other words, if there are two pieces of lasagna left in the hotel pan, but the pan of stuffed shells is stuffed, go for the latter; the length of time a food item sits in a steam table makes all the difference in the world. Everything sampled here tasted robustly homemade Italian when freshly brought out, but foods that had been sitting awhile were dried out, the ladles of tomato sauce plopped on top of them a matter of too much, too late.

Of course you can show up weekdays at 11:00 a.m., when the café first opens, and your options for freshness are bullish; arrive late in the day and the best you can do is grin and bear it. You wouldn't have to if they'd switch their hot pasta items to half-sized hotel pans instead of full-sized -- that means twice the trips from kitchen to counter, but it also keeps the food twice as lively.

I also wonder why, instead of serving a mix of what look to be frozen vegetables, the café doesn't utilize the lovely produce at Laurenzo's Farmers Market next door. On the day I visited they appeared to have done so with just one salad, the roasted tri-color peppers marinated with fresh basil, black olives, capers, and cubes of fresh mozzarella cheese in olive oil (more oil than Dick Cheney's investment portfolio), and it was clearly the best cold offering of the day.

The café does take advantage of Laurenzo's fabled wine selection, the nine bottles lined up by the cash register representing what I would guess to be the widest and most interesting array of vintages-by-the-glass you're apt to see in a self-service cafeteria. Maybe having some sips of decent wine will ease the sting of having to line up for lunch with a plastic tray and sit at tables covered in plastic red-and-white or green-and-white checkerboard cloths. At the very least maybe it will make listening to Dean Martin tunes over the café speakers more bearable.

Finish up with an eminently affordable cup of Illy espresso ($1) or cappuccino ($2). By the way, don't take it personally, but your credit card isn't good here -- cash only. If you have any left over, the café sells T-shirts that say "Fuhgeddaboudit." Then again, that's probably just the sort of foolish spending that got you into this bind to begin with.


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