For every neighborhood there should be a special restaurant to serve its dining needs. A place where locals can enjoy a pleasant ambiance, without attitude, and perhaps even engage in conversation. Where the menu stimulates without indulging in excess, particularly concerning price. Where the cuisine is so consistently and exquisitely prepared that the only "off" nights are the ones when the restaurant is closed. Yes, that great and elusive American dream -- the perfect neighborhood restaurant. I've searched for it in every city I've ever lived. I believed in it. And then I met South Beach.
In any community, a dedicated search can be a year's undertaking, requiring a meal in every restaurant, not to mention the return visits that serve as reality checks. But in South Beach's one square mile, the task is complicated by the fact that the area resembles less and less a 'hood than it does a culinary war zone. The sheer number of restaurants makes repeat visits for the culinary adventurer unlikely, if not impossible. In a reversal of a trend from previous years, it seems more restaurants have opened this past July than closed for vacation the last one. Talk about job stress.
The main philosophy behind summer premieres is to practice on the locals in order to make good on the winter tourists. And most of us don't mind the options presented by the burgeoning multitude of restaurants. But every once in a while I need the comfort of a familiar menu, an acknowledged favorite dish (that I don't have to cook myself), and a room where I always feel welcome. It's a rare find in the neighborhood that is South Beach. It's even more unusual to discover that a newcomer, Pappamondo, is just such a place.
An Italian trattoria on Washington Avenue, Pappamondo opened in the same location once occupied by another Italian restaurant, Piccolo Mondo. The similar names are only a coincidence, but irony is at work here: Piccolo Mondo, which closed seasonal doors to the stagnant sidewalk last summer, never regained its clientele and ultimately failed. Pappamondo, on the other hand, began operations in late April, with full and eager knowledge of the modest versus the manic seasons. Proprietor Stefano Roncon brings some SoBe savvy to the operation, having waited tables for two years at the respected Ocean Drive establishment Caffe Milano.
A native of Genoa, Roncon, along with partners Stefano Barbagallo and Marco Stratone, is content to build his clientele one resident at a time. Confident but not cocky, he knows winter will bring not a dismal wind but an influx of dining dollars; he also knows that residents often direct tourists to favored restaurants. Building Pappamondo's local reputation as a comfortable, classy trattoria is paramount.
He is attempting to accomplish this by monitoring each aspect of the operation. In the kitchen, he does prep work, though chef Patrizio Di Bari -- imported from Milan and the Stresa, a culinary academy -- needs little assistance with his homemade creations, from bread to pasta to dessert. On the floor, he expertly supervises a skeleton staff that somehow seems fully fleshed, perhaps because Roncon himself also waits tables. On a recent visit, he was our server, a gracious professional seemingly emulated by his employees. (Over the course of several meals, we have never experienced anything but a genuine welcome.)
This is the image I carry with me of a true trattoria, which Pappamondo fulfills: a still, warm room, open to a busier sidewalk, the air pushed tenderly aside by Kenny Scharf-inspired ceiling fans. Done in shades of blond and bronze, Pappamondo's light wood floors, golden stucco walls, and oversize mirrors (wall coverings, practically, sure to be a narcissist's delight) conspire with some hefty wine racks, local artwork, and potted palms to convey the very picture of Italy. You won't find too much of the chill of bottled air here, just as you won't find the dried and boxy pasta, the premade sauces, or even the store-bought bread.
Our recent dinner began with a complimentary piece of bruschetta, notable for its firm toast that held with integrity the chopped herbal tomatoes. A basket of hand-rolled bread followed, two different kinds: a sweet sesame flat bread, chewy like a focaccia but more dense; and a country loaf with a lusty crust and a beautiful, downy center. Roncon says this ambitious kitchen work may cease with season and give way to a commercial bakery's bread. Finally there's a benefit for us locals to enjoy, but I regret that it may be only temporary. Perhaps a compromise is possible: one bread from the restaurant's ovens, the other from an outsider's.
The antipasti were excellent accompaniments to the delicious baskets. Though the air-cured beef with grapefruit sounded intriguing, and the melon with prosciutto, an astonishing pink mound of Parma prosciutto and honeydew, looked tempting as they passed by our table, we decided on the gamberetti con fahioli in salsa di olio e prezzemolo. A generous pile of medium-size shrimp, fresh and tightly curled, and white cannellini beans were lightly coated with flavorful parsley and olive oil; additional olive oil was brought to the table as a burnished, functional centerpiece. The tris tropicale, a wonderful combination of shelled and shredded crab meat, sturdy hearts of palm, and yellow, buttery avocado also vied for attention on the table, a lovely study in silver and gold.
The five salads on the menu, just as appealing in description, may even have taken precedence as the appetizer of choice. On one visit, my husband and I shared the house specialty, insalata Pappamondo. A field of arugula was garnished with sweet kernels of corn and tender bay scallops barely braised by the heat. An addition of bresaola slices (salty, air-cured beef) was free of fat; a fine top to the salad and noteworthy if only for its
color, the meat was also chopped and mixed with the more bitter bottom of arugula. An accomplished plate, the salad's variety of tastes -- from salt and sweet to bland and bitter -- matched its aesthetic appeal.
For primi piatti, the pastas, several outstanding choices made selections difficult. My favorite, the penne funghi porcini e gamberi, a tubular noodle with wild mushrooms and chopped shrimp, was without question a rich, rich dish. Still, for all the cream, the earthy flavors of the porcini mushrooms and the delicate taste of the shrimp were not overwhelmed. Fashioned without the bondage of an indiscriminate cheese, as is appropriate with mushroom sauces, this pasta stood as testimony to Di Bari's culinary skill.
A lighter pasta pleasure was the conchiglie vegetariane, a melange of colorful zucchini, red pepper, and eggplant lightly tossed with large bow ties. A smooth and subtle olive oil sauce imbued this dish with gentle flavor, a summer scent.
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The tagliolini pomodore e basilico also proved enticing on a hot evening. Handmade strings of pasta in a tangy tomato sauce lacked the promised snap of basil, but the egg noodles took an al dente blue ribbon.
Gnocchetti sardi con salciccia piccante, gnocchetti with spicy sausage, differed from the dumplings we anticipated. Rather they resembled tiny shells, covered gently by ground sausage and olive oil. No heavy marinara inhibited the sausage from being the focal point of this satisfying meal.
Though not many meat dishes grace the menu, they're sometimes featured as specials, along with a ravioli of the day (such as a recent ricotta and vegetable) and grilled catch of the day. We tried a prawns special, three beautifully presented shrimp so large they looked and tasted like lobster tails. Frequently, however, specials carry heftier price tags than the reasonable pastas.
Being reasonable was forgotten as apres dinner approached. As might be expected of a man so handy with his starches -- bread and pasta -- dessert is Di Bari's forte. We sampled several, including the ever-present tiramesu, as fine a version as I've had anywhere on the Beach, and a flaky apple strudel filled with currants and pine nuts. Complimentary almond cookies -- delicious swirls of butter, nuts, and flour -- tapped out my sweet tooth. But not my taste for Pappamondo, where courteous service and high-quality cuisine are residents' -- and everyone else's -- just desserts.