Price -A-Roni

"The engine which drives Enterprise is not Thrift, but Profit." You might be tempted to attribute this contention to Ross Perot in 1992, but in fact, the words were written by John Maynard Keynes in 1930. And yet, to take Baron Keynes's dictum further than the great British economist -- the real father of the New Deal -- would have intended or dared, the energizing fuel of that profit-driven engine is greed. Nowadays Europeans are beginning to settle into this modus, but Americans, whose traversal through history has generated no other system of economics, understand and practice this philosophy every day. It is the way of our world: from brokerage houses to TV stations to mom-and-pop stores, everyone pitches and peddles for profit.

Which is all fine and well, so long as the requisite suckers are plentiful and willing to pay artificially -- and stratospherically -- jacked-up prices. Given the recent climb at the gas station, oil companies must be confident that the supply is inexhaustable. And considering the popularity of Coral Gables's most expensive Italian restaurant, Casa Rolandi, the public's disposition to be robbed blind is surely prevalent enough to fix a smile on P.T. Barnum's corpse.

Open for three years in the northernmost and least developed quarter of Ponce de Leon Boulevard, and owned and operated by restaurateur Fabio Rolandi, this casa has been erected for very steep, and none too distinguished, Italian dining. Only divas hailing either from Manila's Malacanang or New York's Helmsley palaces would be undeterred. Indeed, perhaps only Imelda and Leona could justify the outlay of $24 for a piece of fish and $4 for a bottle of water, given the former's propensity for purchasing hundreds of black bras and pumps. For most Miamians, though, this Northern Italian excursion is an indulgence to be ranked beside David Paul's savings-and-loan silverware.

"Welcome to Casa Rolandi Miami," the menu exclaims, modestly calling itself the "home of the finest Swiss-Italian and North Italian cuisine, known also as the cuisine of Italy's Lake District." Such hyperbolic claptrap is typical of Casa Rolandi's menu and emblematic of the dining experience in general, as we shall see. Given that the north region of Italy is made up of a vast plain contained by the Alps, with Gran Paradiso the highest peak within the country, the sobriquet "Swiss-Italian" is both foolhardy and redundant. In the past, I have complained about the lack of geographic and cultural definition in Italian menus -- and recently have been reminded of a similarly ignorant attitude over Italy's fragrant southern cuisine -- but really, does Fabio Rolandi mean Venice or Verona in his lake-district diatribe? For all the context it yields, he could just as easily say Lake Okeechobee.

Rolandi's cuisine is a mixed bag of ordinary Italian dishes as we have become accustomed to them in America. As with any restaurant listing such high prices -- and taking into account here the overenthusiastic selling of items on this menu -- expectations of quality are naturally stirred up. On the matter of Casa Rolandi's hoodwinking menuspeak, a selection of mussels, white wine, and basil ($9.50) among the appetizers is deemed "Delightful!"; the risotto blended with wild mushrooms, saffron, and parmesan cheese ($19) is praised as "A winner!"; and the adjective "wonderful" appears any number of times to describe dishes emitting from Fabio's "Magic Oven." (And what does that denote? A porno actress?) Great expectations sink like the Andrea Doria at Casa Rolandi.

A patron will gladly forgo a menu's steady stream of imbecilities if the morsel posited on his plate is eloquent enough. Alas, this patron's morsels were about as eloquent as a Brooklyn cab driver's rendition of Dante's Inferno. Of the three appetizers I tasted -- the traditional summertime vitello tonnato ($10), beef carpaccio a la piemontese ($9.50), and a mozzarella-and-tomato insalata caprese ($9.50) -- each was edible enough, none was even remotely outstanding. To generate encomiums, the sauce ladled over the slivers of veal requires great expertise in order to achieve a matchlessly luscious texture to counter the salty kick of tuna, anchovies, and capers. (A homemade mayonnaise, a touch of cream, and a jellied veal stock help as components.) Unfortunately, this unacceptably bland dressing was as pleasurable and sensual as a tuna fish sandwich and a glass of milk. The beef carpaccio, beset by a far-too-pungent pecorino cheese as accompaniment rather than a fine Reggiano parmesan, was, in Italian culinary terms, the equivalent of Rocky Balboa's pronunciation of the English language. The cheese in the salad did not evince the heavenly creaminess of true buffalo mozzarella, though the tomatoes, basil, and olive oil compensated...somewhat.

Casa Rolandi's wide pasta selection actually covers the entire boot-shaped country, from capelli d'Angelo San Remo ($11) to more Mediterranean fare such as linguine with red or white clam sauce ($12). Either way, the execution generates all the comfort of a boot up the behind. For example, spaghetti alla carbonara ($11), an all-time Roman favorite, is admittedly a difficult dish to prepare to anything near perfection. Timing is everything -- the butter, cream, eggs, and parmesan cheese must be added carefully to the pasta and tossed vigorously in order to contain the skillet's temperature and thus not scramble the eggs. Premium ingredients are also compulsory, especially Italian pancetta, pepper-coated and immeasurably smoky, and a respectably aged parmesan. But Rolandi's carbonara is resolutely run-of-the-mill. American bacon and onions were added to a dish that should be laden with luxury -- and the noodles were overcooked. Rigatoni with a gorgonzola cream sauce ($11) again showed a tendency to lay on the heat. Resultingly, the sauce stuck to the rigatoni like the press corps clung to Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton at last week's Democratic convention. One of the pricier items among the pastas, pappardelle al funghi porcini ($15), presented a brown sauce of no distinction, barely hinting at mushrooms and rosemary. The pasta contingent at Casa Rolandi aims loftily at the skies and lands squarely in the mud. It's akin to serving Rice-A-Roni and calling it risotto.

Just when this pitiable customer could endure no more deception, then came a fillet of salmon with radicchio, grapes, pine nuts, and a white wine sauce ($22) that momentarily raised this submerged vessel back to life. The salmon, beautifully cooked to a rosy pink and flavored enticingly, was ordered by one of my guests, a newly wed Italian-American woman of considerable understanding and appreciation of fine food. She smiled as she sampled, and after her husband and I tasted a bite, so did we. But the boons were about as long-lived as Ed Rollins's tenure at the aborted Perot's campaign. The lamb chops with thyme sauce ($21) were served rare enough to emit bleats upon penetrating their soft red flesh.

More of a club than a home, Casa Rolandi's service is a plus only if you have clout. We were mostly ignored throughout the course of dinner, but toward the end, a woman of continental elegance entered the restaurant, sat down on her own, and the waiters and busboys descended on her like buzzards. Had it been the owner of the restaurant himself -- in drag yet! -- this lady could not have been more thoughtfully and promptly attended. Our waiter, conversely, a Spaniard from Burgos, disappeared for fifteen-minute stretches.

But Rolandi's signature worst came in the shape of a dessert. An ice cream cake, no less, one clearly intended to resemble a baked alaska. Doused and flambeed with enough booze to melt the ice cream and jazzed up with a rubicund raspberry sauce, the resulting slush was the spitting image of a botched operation. No more sightly than Tammy Faye's rouged mug, Casa Rolandi's cake is a bona fide horror. It's the Jackson Memorial of desserts, guaranteed to give cardiologists -- or sweet-toothed customers -- mind-bending technicolor nightmares.

CASA ROLANDI 1930 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 444-2187. Hours: Lunch Monday -- Friday from noon to 3:00 p.m.; dinner Sunday -- Thursday from 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 6:00 to 11:30 p.m.


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