Pasta Perfect

My husband remembers Bella Ravioli. He remembers the neighborhood A Italian, working-class, streets rimmed with naked oaks and snow-scarred cars A and the bakery next door, the cannolis, zeppoles like sweet miniature snowballs, breads stacked upon breads. He recalls the door, always a little stuck, always jarred open to the clamorous announcement of bells, and the airborne flour's immediate dart to the eyes; he recollects the knock and punch of dough on the counter, the hum of it being threaded into spaghettini, twirled easily as suggestion into fusili, and how he would stand, his fingers awkward from the winter's numbing cold, shedding his gloves before the delicate, practiced agility.

Ancient dust-powdered tins of anchovies and tonnato, capers, plum tomatoes, and olive oil in utility-sized glassed vacuums towered to the right. Left of the door, freezer cases frosted sacks of fettuccine, tortellini, and gnocchi. If the owner by chance happened to be cutting his special spinach-veal ravioli just as my husband, fronted by a draft, edged through the shaky plywood, he would toss some cornmeal into a cardboard box, slide in the sheets of ravioli perforated like stamps, and corset the exterior with bakery twine. "Only a minute in the boiling water," the owner would say, every time. "Go easy, easy. Don't forget." Ah, Bella. He remembers. And it drives me nuts.

Bella Ravioli was a highlight of our gritty Boston suburban existence. The shop supplied fresh pasta to the better Italian places in the North End and, a joyous discovery, it also sold to the public, fresh or frozen. We loved the chicken-prosciutto tortellini and traditional potato-flour dumplings so much we loaded a cooler with ice, and carted poundfuls to appreciative parents and siblings in New Jersey.

Eventually we found a neighborhood restaurant that carried Bella's ravioli, and we cooked it often. It haunted my husband's dreams; every so often I would hear him sleep-moan, "Bella, Bella...." Unfaithful to me by way of ravioli A oh, the humiliation! Even worse was knowing, always, that after we left Boston, each meal, each strand of semolina was being compared and falling, like a drizzle in the desert, that much short of satisfaction.

Until our recent discovery of Oggi, that is, Miami's version of pasta perfection.

The neighborhood is North Bay Village, not northern Italian. Imported goods don't dress the restaurant walls; rough-hewn beams decorate the room instead of the refrigerator cases that could so easily have been part of the scheme. And winter not being readily available in the south, my parents may just have to fly down to Miami to benefit from Oggi's talent with a noodle. The similarity of Oggi to Bella Ravioli is more singular, visible mostly in the final product: premium pasta.

Like Bella, Oggi supplies eateries all over town A the Gables, the Grove, South Beach A with homemade goods. It also sells fresh pasta and sauces to individuals to cook at home, provided that orders are placed early in the morning. But the business has taken the idea of Bella Ravioli one step further. Oggi now supplies itself. It is the extension Bella could have become, but didn't.

Having mutated into a restaurant, the pasta supply house has quickly become a full house for lunch and dinner, somewhat surprising when you consider the lack of advertising. Even more surprising is that Oggi, at least by phone, does not appear to identify itself as a restaurant. Off-hours, an answering machine takes all calls, inviting orders. Meanwhile, patrons are already flanking the doors, eager to be seated. It seems Oggi subscribes to the Field of Dreams philosophy: Cook it, and they will come. Repeatedly. Multi-orgasmically, even.

We certainly A how can I render this delicately? A got busy over full plates of fettuccine. The carbonara was richly satisfying, the flat noodles hugging the creamy sauce rather than drowning in it. Though the portion was astonishingly large, especially for a dish that thickens as it cools, all of the pastas arrived similarly mounded. The spaghettini puttanesca, an intense joining of tomatoes, anchovies, capers, and black olives, appeared to actually multiply as we ate it, battling the carbonara for insurmountability. But in the way that hearing sometimes has little to do with listening, so too does appetite often operate independent of hunger.

An equally flavorful dish, the penne amatricciana, with tomatoes, bacon, and onions, pleased us with its initial pungent onion, its slightly salty back kick. In the pasta category, however, the tortelloni bicolore took precedence. Stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes and ricotta cheese, delicately sauced with tomato-cream, a dozen pasta pockets curled on the plate like the numbers on a clockface. One of my companions ate them with meticulous relish, in clockwise order, no less.

But while pasta figures obviously among the freshest items, it's only part of the battalion. Three veal and three chicken dishes are offered; the peto di pollo al basilico, a boneless breast of chicken brushed feathery with a butter-lemon sauce, was indicative of the care afforded to all dishes on the menu. Meat dishes are also optioned as sandwiches. As entrees, they're served with your choice of vegetable of the day, pasta, or salad.

The generous house and Caesar salads, large enough to share, were split for us in the kitchen upon request. A tangy vinaigrette that featured sweet chopped onions and peppers A real vegetables, not dehydrated A completed the house salad of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and olives. The Caesar salad, a thriving production of greens and croutons, relied on anchovy fillets rather than paste for the salty necessity of dressing. I've experienced great misfortune in Caesar salads lately A flat, tinny, egg-slimy romaine, the dressing frequently relying too much on garlic for flavor. The ingredients on Oggi's salad balanced each other properly, acids counteracting bases, vinegar and lemon sharpening the thick olive oil and cheese.

Served with the salads and throughout the meal, thick-crusted, epi-style breads aren't purchased from a local supplier and warmed in the oven; they're not even baked earlier in the day and reheated. From raw yeast to the airy, lacy fabric of tended dough, these breads, like the pasta, are fashioned by hand and on the premises. Though a request for more took a few moments as the oven finished its duty to the crust, the loaves each time arrived so lava-hot, the waiter routinely instructed us to wait until they cooled. Patience? With the fragrant taunt of new bread in front of us? Nonsense. Burned fingers are only one example of the dangers inherent in this job; I sport mine with pride.

Home-baked bread sounds ambitious. But naturally, Oggi is ambitious. A delivery-supply service that generates a steady eat-in clientele in less than three months is achieved only through hard work and a desire to succeed. Our waiter worked the entire room with the help of one busboy; he also waited lunch and delivered the pasta orders in the morning. This is daily. The kitchen staff makes bread, pasta, and desserts (purists may forgo the tiramesu A try anything with almond creme or chocolate sponge cake). This is also daily. And some customers eat there, yes, daily. I applaud this kind of ambition.

But while the extensive preparation is apparent, no one sweats on the dinner table, no hint of the activity behind the swinging kitchen doors rolls onto the floor. Despite its origin and continuing service to the restaurant community, this is a professional, full-service restaurant.

Not to mention friendly. Staff is so forthcoming I know about the waiter's upcoming fatherhood (he's bursting with it). In Oggi, which seats only twenty people, it's homestyle, casual. If the wine isn't served as fast as it could be, neither is the check. Even when the line mounts outside, stomachs chanting with anticipation, the slow but well-paced service insures a leisurely meal. This policy may seem counterproductive. I counsel the wait. When it's your turn for Oggi's tender veal parmigiana, you, too, will want to take your time.

Prices also appear contra-indicative. In the Grove or Gables, servings of this caliber require a hefty down payment. At Oggi, all that's needed for a three-course meal is the money you might have used to fill your economy car with gas. Either way, you'll be eating the same pasta, with no doubt equal amounts of gusto.


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