Once Again with Nando

A restaurateur often experiences an understandable preoccupation with his restaurant, particularly if he spends every minute nurturing it, christens it with his own name, or takes dramatic steps to prevent its death. Should he choose (or be forced) to sell it too early -- say, in the first few years of business -- he quite likely may be grief-stricken.

Chef-owner Nando Pietroni, however, is curiously unsentimental. A former pastry chef on Princess Cruise Lines's indomitable Love Boat, Pietroni suffered no pangs of regret when he let go of his North Miami Beach bakery, Nando Pastry Shop, in 1989, just eighteen months after opening it. He exhibited the same placidity when he turned over the keys to his namesake restaurant in 1991, only fifteen months after serving his first plate of pasta; he even sold the rights to his name. And nostalgia was definitely not the reason he returned to the very same shopping plaza (where Nando's is still located) to debut his three-month-old venture, L'Aurora Ristorante Italiano. He does admit that his emotions were involved in this decision to return. "I like the landlord," he says simply.

Acrimony between a landlord and tenant can result in the ousting of the business; ultimately it's the customer who loses. A harmonious relationship, on the other hand, promotes a long-term, win-win situation for everyone involved. This is the case at L'Aurora, a 90-seat contemporary dining room where the white-washed walls are trimmed with wood and highlighted with black-framed paintings, where the white linens are starchier than spaghetti, and where the neighbors have already established themselves as regulars, pampered and coddled by the entire staff.

And where I can get a house salad that's refreshing and original. Insalata all'Aurora was a fragrant, crackling blend of carrots, fennel, and endive, sliced thinly and tossed with balsamic vinegar and a smidgen of olive oil. The smoky sweetness of the aged balsamic nicely balanced the anise-scented fennel, which can often be overpowering.

But the house salad paled in comparison to the insalata forestiera, a delicious blend of fresh spinach, grated Parmesan, blue cheese, whole walnuts, and chopped red onions, all swathed in a tart lemon dressing. This alternative to caesar was complemented immensely by a basket of fresh-baked bread. The waiter also brought over a plate of basil-heavy bruschetta -- the same bread toasted, then heaped with juicy tomato chunks and sparks of garlic.

Garlic was a common ingredient throughout the meal, but never more evident than in the fra diavolo sauce that enhanced an appetizer portion of fried calamari and zucchini. Tender rings of body meat and matchstick zucchini slices were sealed in a flaky batter, then deep-fried. A double wash, first of lemon, then of the zippy tomato sauce added significant flavor to the mild crunch.

The pastas -- all 21 of them, excluding nightly specials and risottos -- are impossibly tempting. We dithered over penne with fresh salmon and broccoli; spaghetti with Alaskan king crab meat and fresh tomatoes; and crespelle with fresh ricotta and spinach before deciding on an order of orecchiette contadina. Tomatoes, meaty mushrooms, and melting mozzarella cheese nestled into the indentations of this ear-shaped pasta; a dusting of black pepper and Parmesan cheese were probably unnecessary given the abundant flavor the sauce carried. I'd nibble on those divine ears anytime.

A Maine lobster special was served over the pasta of our choice. We decided on one of the homemade types, the long flat tagliatelle (like fettuccine). Nearly hidden by the 24-ounce steamed lobster, the tagliatelle proved to be exceptional, a springy al dente mat for the red pepper, tomato, and garlic sauce. The lobster, served in the shell, had been halved and cracked to reveal its rich, buttery meat, far superior to its clawless Florida cousin. A generous medley of seafood -- four huge New Zealand mussels, butterflied shrimp, and scallops as white as moons completed the plate, which was more like a platter.

Service was efficient and exquisite. Empty shells were whisked away as soon as they touched the bowl at my elbow, and appetizers were dished out by expert spoon-wielders; one server was so comfortable with the utensils he was holding he couldn't stop playing rhythms with them. And for the first time in recent memory, I actually had to wait for my dish to cool before I ate it.

Steam was rising from the tagliata di manzo l'Aurora as well. The succulent sliced sirloin steak, prepared precisely as ordered, exuded a hearty charred aroma and wilted the peppery green arugula underneath it. A slightly creamy peppercorn sauce covered the beef to its advantage without drowning it, a spike of rosemary contributed character, and a side dish of broiled scalloped potatoes, crisp and faintly au gratin, were a matching treat.

The potatoes were also served with scaloppine Michelangelo, the only dish that lacked strength. Three veal cutlets were overcooked, too dry. A light sauce featuring verdant asparagus (a substitution for the artichokes promised on the menu) and pungent Gaeta olives spoke only of the olives, providing little depth.

We regained equilibrium with dessert, a ricotta cheesecake that looked as dense as a cement wall but tasted as light as a tent in a breeze. I didn't care for the candied fruit dotting the butter-rich bottom crust, but that's solely a personal preference. Thumbprint almond cookies and a platter of fruit (melon, oranges, and kiwi) were provided by the house for the table, a lovely touch A especially considering the goodness of those chewy little pastries. Nando Pietroni oversees his kitchen with distinction, but his talent truly lies in baking.

Whether Pietroni continues to run this shopping-center secret himself or sells it at the eighteen-month mark is yet to be seen. But look on the L'Aurora side of things: That gives us at least a year to bask in its rising glory.

Side Dish
The votes are in, the decisions are out, and one of Miami's own has once again snagged a top honor. Like former Miami colleague Robbin Haas, who took the prize last year, Grand Cafe chef Pascal Oudin was voted one of America's eight Best New Chefs for 1995 by Food & Wine magazine. His recipe for chicken breasts stuffed with herbed goat cheese is featured in the August issue. That fact, however, begs the question: Why cook it when you can order it? Let the folks in the other 49 states wonder if the recipe came out right. We've got the master in the house.


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