Mediterranean Muddle

A few years ago New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl postulated that because Italian restaurants are so common, new ones need an angle in order to attract customers. At the time she was reviewing yet another mediocre Manhattan caffe, this one attempting to distinguish itself from the other strands of spaghetti by serving chocolate pasta. Chocolate pasta, Reichl concluded, might reel in a curious clientele, but it sure wouldn't keep 'em.

Her comment stayed with me because it's true. Italian eateries are a lira a dozen, and I have a hard time dining at them, both professionally and recreationally, if they don't grab my attention in some special way. Gerardo Cea, proprietor of Cafe Prima Pasta, understands. He calls about once a month to entice me to his wife's trattoria, Faccia Cafe. "It's run by girls," he tells me. "Only girls. You like things like that."

I do. But not enough to analyze yet another plate of pasta, no matter how good it might be. Luccia Stilianudakis, on the other hand, who owns the South Miami restaurant Pasta Fiore with her husband-chef George and her sister's husband-chef Walter Rivas, has divined a way to my Alfredo-jaded heart. Pasta Fiore serves a smattering of Greek specialties in addition to its countless pasta dishes. Greek food in an Italian restaurant? Now there's a hook I can get my lip caught on.

Especially when the spanakopita (spinach pie) and lamb shank braised in tomato sauce, cooked by George Stilianudakis, are so tasty. The Italian dishes pale in comparison, even though they are prepared by Rivas, an Argentine Italian who worked at Botticelli Trattoria (which formerly occupied this space) for three years. The saganaki, a Greek appetizer of flambeed kasseri cheese, for example, was infinitely more intriguing than a similar Italian starter called mozzarella dorata. The Metaxa-doused saganaki was flamed tableside, igniting like a north Florida forest fire (but more easily extinguished). The block of aromatic cheese was hot and rich but not melted; its integrity as a whole was maintained. Meanwhile the breaded and deep-fried square of mozzarella was prepared in the kitchen and served lukewarm, with an overly fried exterior and a too-tangy sauce of roasted peppers, tomatoes, cream, and lemon. The mild cheese got lost.

Ditto the Greek salad versus the Antonella salad (the latter comes free with entrees). But I'd rather pay for the chopped romaine, cucumbers, and tomatoes of the Greek salad, tossed with fiery pepperoncini and musky kalamata olives; grated feta cheese and a lemony vinaigrette perked up the vegetables. The Antonella salad -- romaine and radicchio, sliced onions, and quartered tomatoes -- featured an overly oily vinaigrette. Minestrone, which can be ordered instead of the gratis salad, offers a better option. Its fragrant, light broth was rife with vegetables, including zucchini, potatoes, carrots, and kidney beans.

Pasta Fiore offers a peck of pasta dishes, even baked ones such as eggplant Parmesan, manicotti, and meat lasagna. I was seriously tempted by the lasagna -- it's hard to find really authentic, hearty lasagna in this subtropical city -- but was even more interested in the Greek version, an irresistible moussaka. As big as a brick, the moussaka was composed of thin slices of eggplant, layered with a plethora of sauteed ground beef in tomato sauce, and lidded with a fluffy, lightly browned bechamel. A puddle of olive oil underneath the moussaka looked as if it might overwhelm the dish (or our intestinal tracts), but instead it added a pungent note.

Even dessert seemed more appealing on the Greek side of things (literally, the left-hand side of the three-page menu). It came down to a choice between baklava and tiramisu. The latter having become a restaurant cliche, there was no choice, really: The baklava was superb, with whole pistachios sandwiched between delicate layers of phyllo dough, which in turn were doused with honeyed syrup.

So herein lies my disappointment: Pasta Fiore is essentially an Italian restaurant, despite the Greek background of one of the owners. As such the Greek dishes are limited to four appetizers and three entrees. By way of comparison, Italian starters number seven, with more than a dozen entrees (in addition to that previously mentioned clutch of pastas). What's more, all of the daily specials, listed on a blackboard outside the restaurant, are Italian. And while several of these items were satisfactory, if they were placed side by side with equivalent dishes from any other local trattoria, I wouldn't be able to tell them apart.

Take, for instance, the rack of lamb, a blackboard entree. Grilled simply and hinting of rosemary, the three double-cut chops were a little overdone, and certainly no better here than elsewhere. A side of risotto with portobello mushrooms was too loose, the grains of arborio rice lost in an overabundance of liquid. A special ravioli, shared as an appetizer, was wonderful: a half-dozen rounds stuffed with shredded crab and lobster, all smothered in cream sauce. But like the mozzarella, this dish wasn't as hot temperature-wise as it should have been. And the pesce del giorno, a main course of breaded snapper broiled with lemon and garnished with two shrimp and two mussels, was pleasant and fresh but hardly anything to write Mama about.

Ordered from the regular menu, an entree of vitello mare e terra (veal scaloppine dressed with red wine, onions, and several jumbo shrimp) was an exception to the mundane fare. This dish was both inspired and well prepared, the tender, pounded veal medallions complemented by -- not competing with -- the vibrant sauce. Even the shrimp, which can be shy in a red wine-spiked sauce, held their own.

Whatever its culinary shortcomings, Pasta Fiore became popular enough for the owners to expand to 55 seats several months ago. Clean and softly lighted, with green-and-white plaid curtains at the windows, textured walls painted in lemony tones, and sunny linens on the tables, it nonetheless lacks character. If I didn't already know, I'd have a hard time determining the ethnicity of the place. Perhaps the proprietors of Pasta Fiore feel obligated to serve Italian fare, given that Luccia Stilianudakis and Walter Rivas have Italian heritages. Maybe they offer it because the year-old restaurant occupies the former site of Botticelli Trattoria. But the Italian food here simply does not distinguish itself in a city where such stuff is quotidian, and where I can count the number of restaurants that serve truly wonderful Greek dishes on my pinkie.

Pasta Fiore
9705 S Dixie Hwy, South Miami; 305-665-3919. Lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. till 3:00 p.m. Dinner nightly from 5:30 till 10:00 p.m, Friday and Saturday till 11:30 p.m.

Mozzarella dorata
Vitello mare y terra



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