As I inched my way toward my master's degree in poetry at the University of California in Irvine, I took solace in one thing: After every brutal workshop in which we deconstructed each other's work until at least one of us cried in the bathroom and the rest vowed never to pick up a pen again, we'd go out together for dinner. Nothing soothes hurt feelings or glues shredded ambition back together faster than a good meal and a few glasses of good wine. And each week we sought out a new place to eat, to gather around a different kind of roundtable, as friends rather than as (adversarial) poets. Irvine, the planned heart of a built-up Orange County, was no dining mecca, and we were limited to those eateries to which we could walk from the bridge that connected the campus with a large strip shopping center. We did manage to find several restaurants there that offered a great deal more than the basic collegiate burger and beer.
I looked forward to continuing this tradition when I went back to grad school at the University of Miami (this time for a degree in fiction writing). Once again I found the workshop process -- learning more about what you're doing wrong than what you're doing right -- a tad tough on the ego, though not nearly as painful as what we endured behind the Orange Curtain. But this time the area conspired against me: The campus is somewhat isolated from full-service restaurants. Within-range choices appeared limited to JJ's American Diner (now Koo Koo Roo), and LB's Eatery (which has stood empty for more than a year). The Mexican restaurant Chilango's eventually moved in around the Sunset Drive area, which also contains the delicious Middle Eastern El Manara, but we still felt stifled. More often than not we wound up at the university's Rathskeller, where the sandwiches are served in red plastic baskets and the all-student waitstaff thinks white zinfandel counts as white wine. And where, consequently, not many of us healed from our ongoing battle over what constitutes good writing.
We could have used a restaurant like Trattoria Sole. Opened two months ago at the corner of Sunset Drive and South Dixie Highway by brothers Maurizio and Massamiliano Farinelli (the latter is also the chef) and their partner Augustin Sanchez, Sole is just the sort of upscale-enough northern Italian eatery this little boutique area has always lacked. Though the chef is only 25 and has scant past experience in the kitchen (Maurizio is 36, Sanchez 35), the restaurant already displays the qualities of good literature -- a sparkling synthesis of content and form -- not to mention really scintillating prices. All it needs now is a little careful workshopping of the gentlest kind.
Take for example the reservations process. Though the trattoria takes bookings over the phone, no one seems to write them down: The host had never heard of our party. Fortunately we were given the last of the 50 seats in this high-ceilinged dining room that's sponge-painted gold; a line soon extended out the door, and business remained a bombardment throughout the evening.
Ten years ago an appetizer list like Trattoria Sole's -- caesar salad, bruschetta, two kinds of carpaccio (beef and salmon) -- might have been considered bright, fresh Italian, at least here in the States. Now it seems somewhat stock. Still, carpaccio di bue was delightful, a plate of lacy tenderloin layered around a centerpiece of chopped arugula. Flakes of Parmesan cheese and slices of white mushrooms gave the delicate meat some texture, and a lemon garnish, though oddly carved, contributed citrusy bite. A tableside pouring of fragrant olive oil and a grind or two of refreshing cracked pepper capped the dish.
Olive oil and pepper were also last-minute additions to a tasty if traditional antipasto misto, a cold combination for two. Slices of fresh, moist mozzarella, chunks of grana, and imported prosciutto as exceptional as the carpaccio were the mainstays of the platter, with a sprinkle of sliced black olives and a pile of roasted red peppers marinated in balsamic vinegar providing flair, an attribute decidedly lacking in two pieces of pesto crostini.
The selection of hot appetizers -- three in total: fried mozzarella, a combination of fried zucchini and calamari, and grilled vegetables with goat cheese -- was so limited that instead we asked to share some ravioli di ricotta e spinaci from the pasta list (which contains a whopping ten selections, including two risottos). Stuffed with ricotta and vibrant chopped spinach, these homemade dumplings were delicious. The menu indicates that this dish can be served with a butter-sage or a tomato-basil sauce. No one bothered to ask which we preferred; ours arrived with the latter, chunks of plum tomatoes shot through with shreds of minty basil. As a main course we ordered another pasta dish, paglia e fieno ai funghi, which translates as "straw and hay" with mushrooms. Springy homemade green and white fettuccine was irresistible, and musky with sauteed mushrooms. A bath of olive oil and garlic rendered the dish fragrant, more like a field of meadow grass than the bale of horse fodder the name implies.
Specials are few in number, but they're worth trying. We ordered linguine with shrimp and lobster, which was prepared with a light olive oil sauce. The lobster in this case is a Florida native (probably the only one at our table that evening), served whole minus the head. I generally think these creatures pale in comparison to their more supple and flavorful Maine cousins, and it's a rare occasion when I order one, much less enjoy it. Trattoria Sole provided one such instance: The meat was rich, maybe a touch overcooked in one or two places but certainly not chewy, its flavor nicely incorporated into the linguine sauce.
The kitchen is fond of mushrooms; they appeared again on a fillet of red snapper, one of two fish available (the other being salmon). Roasted chunks of mushrooms veritably encrusted a good-size, meaty fillet, and their earthy flavor made an apropos match with the fish. Side dishes of thinly sliced potatoes and sprightly chunks of carrots and squash, not overcooked as they so often can be, were up to the challenge of partnering a very successful main dish.
The same noteworthy sides accompanied vitello ai carciofi e peperoni, three pounded medallions of veal with artichokes and red peppers. Dredged in flour and sauteed, the scallops were layered with soft artichoke leaves and roasted and marinated peppers. A complex light brown sauce deglazed with white wine from the saute pan finished the veal with strength and tang.
The meal didn't finish quite as strongly as the entrees suggested it would, once more owing to a lack of range and imagination. While a rich, custardy zabaglione over strawberries was sinful, we chose it from a limited list of Italian standards, the ubiquitous tiramisu among them. Italian pastries and cakes are so wonderful that it seems a shame not to showcase more of them in this arena. Management, which runs wine promotions by offering bottles of Italian whites and reds in addition to the regular well-priced list, might consider beefing up this section with similar appeal. Trattoria Sole is already lighting up the neighborhood with terrific main-course fare and service. It would take only a tiny bit of revision for it to truly glow.
At the risk of overcooking the literary imagery, I'm compelled to mention that my interest in poetry has led me this year to another endeavor: Now Taste This, a monthlong fundraiser I helped conceive.
The plan was to pair up local chefs with local poets in order to celebrate National Poetry Month. Each chef prepared three of his or her favorite dishes in the presence of a poet counterpart, who then crafted up to three poems based on the process.
The result, I think, is deliciously conceived words that accompany exciting new flavors. Best of all, it's for public consumption. If you go to a participating restaurant and order one of the featured dishes during the month of April, you will receive a scroll printed with both poem and recipe; a portion of the proceeds will go to a literary magazine or other similar beneficiary designated by the chef and poet.
The following restaurants will offer Poets' Menus: Astor Place Bar and Grill, Big Fish, Chef Allen's, Lure, Mark's Place, Neal's, Nemo, Norman's, Norma's on the Beach, Pacific Time, Savannah, and Two Chefs. The poets are John Balaban, Adrian Castro, Fred D'Aguiar, Carolina Hospital, Michael Hettich, Jeffrey Knapp, Steve Kronen, Campbell McGrath, Ricardo Pau-Llosa, Geoffrey Philp, and Peter Schmitt.
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Also, on April 11 Books & Books will sponsor a group reading (see their monthly calendar or call 442-4408 for more info); and in early May Norman Van Aken will host an event-closing cocktail party at Norman's (call 446-6767 for the scoop on that).
5894 Sunset Dr, South Miami; 666-9392. Lunch Monday -- Friday noon to 3:00 p.m. Dinner Sunday -- Thursday 6:00 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11:30 p.m.
Antipasto for two
Vitello ai carciofi