Room to Rome

I subscribe to a variety of culinary publications not so much because I cook, but because I like to keep up with those professionals -- you know, chefs and restaurateurs -- who do. Since I can't go to restaurants all over the world, I figure the least I can do is read about 'em. So every four weeks I mull over a spicy variety of flavors on my palate -- via the magazines in my mailbox.

Except for these past two months.
The April cover of Saveur, one of the glossier food magazines on the market, shows off a ziti dish covered with a tomato-meat sauce and accompanied by a glass of red wine. "A Sicilian Grandson Cooks," reads the tease underneath the picture, and the featured story runs for a dozen pages in the center of the magazine.

Then there's the May issue of Bon Appetit, the culinary mag geared toward sophisticated home entertaining, whose cover highlights Italian staples: tomatoes still on the vine, sesame breadsticks, a hunk of grana cheese, a bowl of olives. Oh, yeah, and a glass of red wine. The photo carries the tease "The Italian Countryside, People, Places & Glorious Food." The entire magazine is devoted to regional recipes, travel notes, and anecdotes.

And finally we have the May issue of Food & Wine, probably the least pretentious of the monthlies, which tempts readers with baked stuffed yellow bell peppers. (That's Italian!) The theme of the issue is "Italian Food You Love Best." No red wine, but a whole lotta mozzarella. Nearly every article spotlights Italian chefs, their restaurants or businesses, and especially their dishes.

You probably don't need me to tell you that when three of the major players publish spring issues that stress the same country or region, the result is reader boredom. And I'm sure the publishers of these rivals were none too thrilled by the print war. But if nothing else, the coincidence did underline one culinary phenomenon: the glut of Italian food on the American market.

Take, for example, the Italian triumvirate on the block where Tenth Street crosses South Miami Avenue. A while back I started hearing about a restaurant called Perricone's. But when I went to review it, I found two other Italian eateries virtually alongside. One was the 60-armchair eatery Piccolo Paradiso, at two years old practically a veteran of this little neighborhood in the shadow of Brickell Avenue. (In fact, its chef-proprietor Matteo Vicinanza, who owns Piccolo Paradiso with his wife Tami, was once a partner in the third neighbor, five-year-old Il Palio Mario.)

When I eat out, I sometimes base my entree choice on what I have in mind for dessert. This practice is very well accommodated by Piccolo Paradiso: Not only are the sweets made daily on the premises, but the list is right there on the dinner menu. I fell in love with the golden, moist almond cake, a sponge cake soaked with cherry-scented amaretto and crusted on top with sugar and sliced nuts ($3.95). The "chocolate raspberry confection," a chocolate cake layered with an air-infused chocolate mousse and garnished with raspberry sauce, was also fantastic.

Come to think of it, working from the bottom up isn't a bad way to peruse a menu, especially when main courses are satisfying and affordable, as is the case at Piccolo Paradiso. This is not fancy, reinvented Italian food; all the entrees, for example, were garnished with the same pan-roasted rosemary potatoes, sliced carrots, and broccoli spear. But the main attractions are exceptionally well-prepared. Fresh fish of the day -- trout with a lemon-butter sauce on the evening I visited -- had been dredged in flour, pan-seared, and garnished with garden-grown herbs. Split open like a double fillet, the fish was sweet, its flesh coming cleanly off the spine and skin. A piccata di pollo proved similar in execution, though the butterflied breast was both skinless and boneless. Dressed in a subtle lemon and white wine sauce, the chicken was poultry poetry, tender and juicy.

The best dish of the night may been the one my timid companions pooh-poohed. Fegato alla veneziana -- calf's liver seared until crisp, then drenched with a dark and rich winy sauce -- was superb ($10.95). Creamy, with a filet mignonlike texture, the two thin slices of pale pink liver were a tender marvel; mild and buttery caramelized onions finished the dish traditionally. To my guests, this delicacy represented a bad childhood memory, but then, they never ate at my house, where liver was treasured. (For those more comfortable consuming other parts, Piccolo Paradiso offers three other veal dishes, all scaloppine: boscaiola, sauteed with mushrooms and asparagus in a white wine sauce; saltimbocca, with prosciutto on a bed of spinach; and alle erbe, sauteed with sage and leeks in an orange-butter sauce.)

The restaurant's homemade pasta is delectable, and portions are large enough to enjoy as a meal or share as a starter. Egg noodles were especially good, featured in the chef's namesake fettuccine Matteo ($11.95). A light cream sauce accented with chunks of smoked salmon and black caviar coated springy, al dente fettuccine. Remarkably, given the salt content of both smoked fish and caviar, this mellow dish was appropriately seasoned.

Pan-seared gnocchi were a tad tough, on the other hand, but robust ingredients saved these potato dumplings. Served like a stew, the gnocchi were mixed with diced asparagus, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and caramelized onions. A light white wine sauce flavored with the juices from the vegetables added just enough moisture to unite the components.

Hot appetizers sounded fairly predictable -- fried squid, steamed clams and mussels, grilled portobello mushroom, eggplant Parmesan.... So we chose the one that sounded a little unusual: calamari con patate, a wonderfully flavored saute fragrant with fresh basil and chopped tomatoes. Pan-fried rosemary potatoes were pleasing, softened by the broth. The squid itself, though, was a mite too chewy for the dish to count as a complete success.

Onion soup topped with Swiss and mozzarella -- a strange touch for an Italian restaurant -- and the more predictable pasta e fagioli are always available here, but as the heat and humidity gain on us, you might want to stick with gazpacho. Though again not something you might anticipate in a trattoria, the cold soup was excellent, almost like a salsa, a chilled, tomato-based broth stocked with chopped onions, bell peppers, and celery. Garlic croutons and fresh sour cream completed the bowl, their sharp notes complementing the vinegary appeal of the gazpacho.

Chopped salad ($6.50), one of four plates of greens (including an eggless caesar), was another delightful way to cool off. Romaine and radicchio were chopped and tossed with toasted pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, crumbles of goat cheese, and a tangy housemade sherry vinaigrette. Smoked salmon, carpaccio of the day, tomato and mozzarella, and prosciutto and melon appetizers, while certainly in the been-there, done-that category, might also make a lovely meal on a summer day.

And this restaurant would be a nice place to try them all. Friendly, professional service and a tourist-deterrent location have already made the place a regular stop on the locals' circuit. The competition may temporarily distract you (I, for one, plan to take a closer look at Il Palio Mario), but unlike carbon-copy food magazines, Piccolo Paradiso is worth much more than a passing glance.

Piccolo Paradiso
1040 S Miami Ave; 372-5756. Lunch Monday -- Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Dinner Wednesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10:00 p.m. (Friday and Saturday until 11:00).

Chopped salad
Fettuccine Matteo
Calf's liver
Almond cake


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