I must appear ethnically generic, because people frequently mistake my nationality for something other than what it is. The most memorable time this happened was in California. An Iranian cab driver asked me if I was Italian. When I replied that I was Jewish-American, he intentionally got lost and charged me $25 for a ride that was worth a ten-spot. I should have lied.
I considered fibbing about my heritage when, sitting with my back to the white-pine-paneled dining room of the Peruvian-Italian restaurant Tino's Place in Coral Gables, a hand fell familiarly on my shoulder. "Are you Peruvian?" a voice filled with warmth breathed near my ear. I turned to recognize the woman who had seated us -- owner Lucy Saric Tonder-Pareto, as I soon discovered. But my horrendous accent would have given me away, so I admitted to being a gringo. Tense, I waited for the inevitable snub.
Fortunately, Tonder-Pareto, a Peruvian who operates Tino's Place with Italian husband Tino Pareto, is no cab driver with a grudge. In fact, the partners in love and in restaurateuring actually seemed grateful that another cultural identity had crossed their three-month-old threshold. Though this is the couple's first venture together, both have restaurant backgrounds -- she via her family's well-established El Restaurant Tambo de Oro in Lima, Peru, he as former food and beverage director of the Jockey Club and catering director of the Sonesta Beach Resort. The menu at Tino's features reasonable prices and a half-Peruvian, half-Italian split; thanks to chefs Jose Dubon and Heraldo Contreras, everything that comes from the smoothly running kitchen is thoughtfully prepared.
To demonstrate our political correctness, we split our dining time between Peru and Italy. Ceviche de camarones was a tangy, spicy appetizer ($10.95). Large shrimp were steamed, then sliced in half lengthwise and marinated in lime juice, cilantro, and red onion, the strong flavors enhancing the somewhat mild crustaceans. Served on a bed of butter lettuce with a ring of red pepper and a traditional garnish of choclo -- a section of corn on the cob -- this was a colorful presentation. Papa a la huancaina was more garish. A thick cheese sauce as bright as Velveeta covered slices of white boiled potatoes, fork-firm, which rested on a bed of green leaves along with black olives and wedges of hard-boiled egg. The sauce was slightly grainy and perky with chili peppers, a flavorful rendition of a well-known South American dish.
One of our Italian picks, carpaccio, was hair-width thin, velvety rounds of beef fanned out over the plate, topped by a flurry of grated grana cheese ($7.95). A small pile of shredded lettuce and red cabbage in the center was dressed with a vinegar-and-olive-oil mixture. Unfortunately, the abundant and fairly flavorless oil marred the carpaccio slightly; a dose of pesto olive oil, which was served with crusty rolls at the start of the meal, might have provided a bit of herbal interest. The freshness of crisp, winter-sweet romaine was the most significant feature of a caesar salad. We liked the dressing, too, a creamy coating that hinted at anchovies and garlic but could have used some more Parmesan. Stale, commercial-tasting croutons didn't help elevate this insalata.
After a first round of cold plates, we were more than ready for some warming pasta. Noodles are all homemade here, and the list leans heavily toward the stuffed pastas -- agnolotti with ricotta and spinach, ravioli with a variety of fillings (from chicken to squash). A dish of tortelloni wrapped in an Alfredo-like sauce was enormously satisfying ($12.95). Though ground chicken was used to stuff the eight large pasta pockets, the filling tasted as rich as veal. A snowstorm of freshly grated Parmesan added pungency. Gnocchi al pomodoro was another belly-filling preparation: light, fluffy potato-and-flour dumplings covered by a tomato sauce that was zesty with basil and a grind of black pepper.
Veal piccata was a fragrant rendering of an old classic ($14.50). Three pounded medallions, pan-fried to near perfection, were iced with a powerful lemon-butter concoction. Capers provided a glimmer of green, while side dishes of tiny white potatoes and grilled carrots, squash, and zucchini filled out the Italian-flag spectrum.
The same sides curved around a fillet of corvina, practically the Peruvian national fish. A special that evening, the white flaky Pacific fish (a member of the grunt family), was offered grilled, blackened, or sauced in a variety of ways. We went with our waiter's recommendation, a froth of black pepper and lemon reminiscent of the veal piccata's sauce, minus the capers. The sprightly citrus was a pleasing match to the crisp-edged corvina, which had been seared until tender and golden.
The wine list comprises a pleasant -- albeit somewhat uninspired -- collection of Italian and California entries, all priced in the twenty-dollar range.
Portions aren't huge at Tino's, but then neither are prices, two conditions that left us plenty of room for dessert. We loved the tartufo, made with both chocolate and vanilla ice cream and rolled in a soft, delicious layer of chocolate crumbs. A sweeter, cavity-teasing dessert was a caramelized milk pudding, like dulce de leche, set in a wine glass and lidded with a halo of meringue.
The Paretos took over the 73-seat establishment from Le Glacier when that restaurant scaled back to two locations last year. The pair of adjacent dining rooms exude cheer, accenting the niceties of green marble-top tables, crocheted doily place mats, and pretty Mikasa dinnerware. Located across the street from Yuca and down the block from Cafe Barcelona, Tino's Place adds more Latin -- and Italian -- seasoning to Giralda Avenue.
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It's Top 10 time again. This year, Coral Gables has national recognition to celebrate -- Bon Appetit magazine honored Norman's, Norman Van Aken's newest venture, as one of the top ten restaurants in America. He joins Gloria Estefan, whose restaurant Larios on the Beach was named one of the best in the country in 1992, and Jonathan Eismann, whose Pacific Time was called one of the best new restaurants in the country in 1994. That puts us on the culinary map with traditionally grand food cities like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans.
Gotta love it when the New World rings in the New Year.
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166 Giralda Ave, Coral Gables; 448-6313. Lunch Monday A Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Dinner Monday A Thursday from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 7:00 to 11:00 p.m.