To separate cuisine -- or culture, for that matter -- by broad geographical parameters is one of society's most tempting and nauseating tendencies. In America, this pervasive pigeonholing extends to the arts: Consider how writers as contrasted as Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty are casually branded "Southern," along with the likes of James Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote, and others. Which of course they were, superficially: McCullers and O'Connor were Georgians, Faulkner and Welty Mississippians, Capote a Louisianan, and Williams -- ironically though suitably -- was born and buried in St. Louis, Missouri. But this senseless penchant for easy categories shows a wanton disregard for the nuances of individual style and a marked insensitivity toward the specific characteristics of a place. Equally in the preparation of jambalaya as in a discussion of Yoknapatawpha County, command of subtle details makes all the difference.
Where cuisine is concerned,~ nowhere has this culturally ignorant attitude been more evident than among the confounding number of Italian restaurants around the nation bearing the moniker "Northern Italian." The designation is rooted in the Italian mass exodus to America toward the end of the Nineteenth Century, when multitudes of impoverished Sicilians and Neapolitans arrived at Ellis Island. Their immigrant food -- tasty, garlicky, laden with peppers and tomatoes -- was what early twentieth-century Americans presumed to be Italian, though later it came to be seen as poor folk's food by the omnivorous middle class. Nowadays the label "Italian-American" is widely employed to denote this bastardized Sicilian-style cooking, and heaping praise on it is regarded by the molto chic as the equivalent of looking for diamonds in a sow's belly.
Northern Italian, as America's nose-raising restaurant owners would have us believe, is rich man's food. The techniques and ingredients take their lead from the classical French school -- butter, cream, stocks, wine, aromatic vegetables, and fresh herbs -- and successively mingle with more traditionally italiano additions such as olive oil, the aforementioned garlic, tomatoes, and peppers, plus nuts, lemons, and wine vinegars. The problem with this dovecote is that cities such as Bologna, Milan, Venice, Genoa, and especially Florence each have their own lofty history, which is encapsulated in the diversity of their respective cuisines. If America's current crop of Italian restaurants have traveled some distance to address the numerous misperceptions about Italian food in general -- to inform, in other words -- a more specialized approach to its subtle distinctions will be required to truly be authentic. Ask any Italian and he'll tell you.
So take note, you retrogressive restaurateurs: Don't mix milanese with bolognese. How about a strictly fiorentino bistro? Or a veneziano? The dividends, culinary and cultural, would be countless.
Which brings us squarely to the cutting-edge environs of South Beach, where such stereotypical Northern Italian eateries rise -- and fall -- like the tide across Ocean Drive's pulverulent front. The most recently annointed member of the fold is I Tre Merli, which means "the three blackbirds" in Italian. It is by no means the finest Italian food to be sampled in Dade County nor, it must be registered, the worst. Two decidedly beneficial bonuses raise your spirits, two detrimental distractions fall like the Hindenburg on those expectations. But more of the latter in due course.
The good news is that this eatery takes a sui generis stab at cuisine -- and mostly excels. There's a palpably genovese flavor to Merli's menu, and it comes as no surprise: this blackbird is the third restaurant to open under the aegis of I Tre Merli's flagship location in Genoa. (The second is in New York's SoHo district.) Another laudable aspect, a happy coincidence of the Italian-restaurant scene, is price: the most expensiveentree -- beef filet -- costs less than $20. In business now for more than two months, Merli has yet to print wine and dessert lists; all the vinos bear Merli's own labels and the desserts are, as yet, unimpressively run-of-the-mill. But the dinner menu is already a highlight.
It's an intelligently rendered compilation drawn from the Ligurian capital's finest foods, and the variety is remarkable. Among the appetizers is funghi alla genovese con polenta ($6.50), sauteed mushrooms with that uniquely satisfying cornmeal preparation, polenta; two types of mozzarella cheese, fresh with tomatoes, basil, and olive oil ($7.50) or smoked with sun-dried tomatoes and prosciutto ($9); grilled calamari with herbs and lemon ~($7); cold grilled vegetables marinated with balsamic vinegar ($7.50); and one of Italy's favorite starters, cacciatorino con caprino ($7), savory dried sausage and fresh goat cheese. There are seven different salads offered, too, from artichoke to radicchio to endive.
Of these munchable overtures one of the best is the piatto di mare ($8), a delicately flavored marinated seafood salad that serves as a reminder that Genoa, apart from being Italy's largest port, is also one of its most ichthyologically various. Italy's distinguished pesci preparations, memorably recalled here, are seafaring enough to contrast with America's own Pesci -- the actor, Joe -- who's pure prosciutto.
Then there is carpaccio, the favorite raw specialty and rave on this side of the Atlantic. I Tre Merli presents three versions -- beef, salmon, and more unusually, lamb ($9.50 for beef and lamb, $11 for salmon). The pink fish was undoubtedly fresh when I tasted it, but its unbecomingly gelatinous texture suggested insufficient marinade -- in this instance olive oil and green peppercorns. Only in its wafer-thin, sliced presentation did the salmon deflect the image -- though hardly the taste -- of sushi turned scaloppine. Much better is Merli's stellar rendition of a true summer passion for Italians, vitello tonnato ($9.50), the improbably splendid platter of cold, braised veal covered in a sauce of pureed tuna, anchovy, veal stock, capers, homemade mayonnaise, and (optionally) heavy cream. Richer than Rockefeller -- and Ford and Getty, too -- these slivers of matchlessly lean veal work a unique kind of magic with the fish-based sauce.
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A restaurant that offers thirteen pasta dishes can't be accused of over-modest ambitions. Here the farinaceous fare is split into two categories, those pastas made by the restaurant chef -- gnocchi, ravioli, fettuccine, and agnolotti -- and presumably commercial types, such as penne, linguine, rigatoni, and spaghetti. An obvious choice for so Genoa-inspired a restaurant is trenette al pesto ($10), linguine in a classic mortar-ground sauce of basil, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil. I sampled pansooti al toco di noci ($11.50), slightly too-al dente ravioli stuffed with herbs and ricotta and doused with a creamy walnut sauce. The penne with fresh sausage and broccoli ($10) was good, the penne with artichoke and baby shrimp ($11.50) better.
Then came the carni. Beef, lamb, and veal dishes, given the amounts deposited and served on each plate, are a bargain, but are they mouth watering? Of the nine landlubbing entrees available, I tasted three and was happy with one: the scaloppine with artichokes ($15.50), a dish blessed with simplicity and distinguished by fine ingredients. I was positively taken aback by the filet of beef in a Barolo wine sauce and roasted shallots ($19.50). The decorative aspect of the dish was thorough -- julienned veggies, three small roasted potatoes, and a mound of marbled filet fit to fill the sturdy stomach of a pope. The sauce, what there was of it, was an insipidly streamy juice no more qualified to accompany this proud filet than Gennifer Flowers is to be First Lady of the United States. The most expensive item on the menu is little more than a hunk of prime meat. Appropriate, perhaps, to a social setting where human hunks of meat, stylishly attired, are venerated beyond religious worship.
Which brings us finally to discuss the two blemishes of our three little blackbirds. First, the atmosphere. The rectangular, high-ceilinged, two-level dining area is undeniably attractive; brick panels cover both walls, a full bar stretches across the north end like an extended wing, the lighting is discreet and dim. But the stratospheric decibel levels -- derived from a combination of hideous Muzak and tribal yelling from obstreperous patrons -- might render Ronald Reagan's deafness a boon. No order of gnocchi is worth this noise; indeed, you may need your Miracle Ear for days thereafter. And there's the attitude. Plenty of it on the way in, and even on the way out. The restaurant staff is, in keeping with the terrain, sleek and glacial. Dining at I Tre Merli is ultimately a test of priorities and human perseverance, to see how much bull you're willing to endure before the beef is delivered and swallowed. In comfort-factor -- though definitely not stove-top -- terms, I Tre Merli is strictly for the birds.
I TRE MERLI
1437 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 672-6702. Open Sunday -- Thursday from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.; and Friday and Saturday from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.