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Selective Service

Talk about your cross-cultural referencing. For a textbook example of good ol' American capitalism in action, look no further than the local Italian restaurant scene. Approximately a dozen new caffes and trattorias open here each year, more than half of which somehow survive. The competition is keen, which in general results in high-quality fare and relatively low prices. So low in fact that a slightly upscale eatery such as North Miami's Rugantino raises the question, Why visit a more expensive Italian restaurant once a month when for the same money you can frequent a cheaper one once a week?

Service, for one thing. The eight-week-old Rugantino, which took over the space formerly occupied by Mark's Place, boasts a remarkably attentive waitstaff. An orchestra of servers materializes whenever an item arrives. One wields a steaming bowl of beanless minestrone soup heaped with chunks of tomatoes, celery, and carrots. Another presents grated Parmesan cheese. A third offers fresh cracked pepper. Busboys keep the beat, refreshing ice water, replenishing warm rolls throughout the meal, and changing silverware as needed. And from a discreet distance general manager Carlo Cattaneo, a maitre d' for the past 44 years, conducts.

Comfort is another consideration. Rugantino takes reservations, so you don't have to stand in line or mill around on the sidewalk as you might at places such as Cafe Ragazzi, Caffe da Vinci, or Cafe Prima Pasta. Additionally, owner Luigi Arca remodeled the 110-seat restaurant, closing off the open kitchen, carpeting the dining room in a deep rose, and placing pink linens atop the generously spaced tables. The once-contemporary eatery, which had been renovated extensively by Mark's Place chef-proprietor Mark Militello several months before it closed last year, now has a stately, elegant appearance. The atmosphere is not quite ritzy enough to warrant the valet parking, however; the restaurant is located in a strip mall, where self-parking is readily available. The valet song and dance, in fact, is the only holdover -- and only pretension -- I recognize from the Mark's Place days. I still find it ludicrous to have someone fetch my car from ten yards away.

Otherwise, forget Mark and remember Alfredo. Not as in fettuccine Alfredo, but as in Alfredo Ferretti, who runs Rugantino's kitchen. Ferretti was the executive chef at the now-defunct Cafe Sci Sci in Coconut Grove, where Cattaneo also worked. But I do tend to think of him in terms of cream sauce; on one of our visits he turned out a sumptuous fettuccine in cream sauce spiked with bits of silky foie gras and shavings of black truffles ($14.50). The sauce contained more butter than cream, and drew additional flavor from a dusting of Parmesan, liberally applied at the table.

We may not have been able to see Ferretti cook, but we could certainly hear him. He thwacked the heck out of pollo alla Palermitana (breaded chicken breast), temporarily drowning out the diner next to us who was berating her husband for staring at another woman. We wished the chef could have pounded that chicken breast all night. But then we wouldn't have been able to enjoy the nonfibrous poultry. The chicken had been coated in crumbs and oregano, then grilled rather than fried -- a plus in our book. Tiny roasted potatoes, as well as buttered squash and baby carrots, accompanied the poultry, as they did all the main courses. The relatively inexpensive chicken breast dishes -- all four priced at $13.95 -- might be the way to go if you intend to order a pasta course first; veal and fish main courses hover around the $20 mark.

Veal pizzaiola ($16.95), a special on a recent evening, was another fine example of the chef's vigor with a mallet. The veal scallops were briefly pan-fried (until they started to curl), then topped with a tangy, slightly chunky marinara sauce. This dish was far superior to another veal concoction, one of the nine available. In the costoletta di vitello ($22.95), an inch-thick chop had been sauteed with butter, wine, and sage. The white sauce was delectable, but the veal chop was riddled, rather than marbled, with fat. Eventually it became too difficult to locate the pockets of meat inside the gristle, and we gave up.

We can't quibble about the quality of the fish and seafood, though. A stone crab appetizer was delightful. Shelled crab and chopped basil were formed into a timbale and served warm, the crab's essence remaining intact. During another visit, this time for lunch, we ordered poached salmon; the light-pink fillet was both juicy and flaky, a brushing of chopped herbs adding just a hint of flavor.

In fact lunch proved to be an inexpensive way to feast on Rugantino's specialties. At midday the restaurant offers a four-course, prix fixe meal with a multitude of choices for each course; prices vary according to the entree ($12.95 for chicken, $14.50 for veal, $14.95 for fish). Appetizers were uniformly appealing. Tricolor bell peppers -- roasted with garlic, parsley, and virgin olive oil -- were delicious. The same flavors accented a calamari salad, rings of succulent body meat and tiny groupings of tentacles. A tomato stuffed with tuna, then broiled, was a bit more pungent, though the fishiness of the olive oil-cured tuna was tempered by the acidity of the tomato.

A large bowl of the minestrone or a mixed green salad followed. I went with the salad, which I feared would be a replica of the insalata tricolore ($5.50) I'd ordered during dinner one night -- a heap of arugula, radicchio, and frisee dressed in olive oil and vinegar that was so large I had to abandon it halfway through. This salad was smaller, appropriately scaled down for lunch and garnished with sliced tomatoes and onions.

Main courses included a supple grilled chicken breast, buttery and mild. Grilled halibut looked and tasted more like tilapia, another fish offered at lunch; the fillet we were served was flatter and not as white as halibut. Regardless, we were enthusiastic about its pan-fried crispness and its freshness. Lunch entrees were served with pasta -- a spaghetti tossed with a fragrant pesto sauce -- as well as a vegetable of the day, in this case chopped sauteed kale.

The prix fixe covers dessert, almost none of which are made on the premises; Arca imports his sweets from Brindi, a Milanese purveyor. Creme caramel was bland, and an apple torte had pieces of skin and core in the filling. But a cherry cheesecake was rich and satisfying. At dinner, a tart lemon torte ($4.95) was available, and Cattaneo says Ferretti is now making tiramisu.

Rugantino isn't the least expensive Italian restaurant in town, but given its devotion to customer satisfaction, the prices certainly don't seem immoderate. And while Miami may be replete with a ridiculous range of pasta joints, service like this is hard to come by. So why not pay a little more for it? You can always play beat-the-bill at lunch, when the issue becomes not how much cash you have to spare but how much time.

Rugantino
2286 NE 123rd St, North Miami; 895-5542. Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and for dinner nightly from 5:30 to 11:00 p.m.

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