When chef Fabio Rolandi first arrived in Coral Gables from northern Italy in 1989, Italian food still basically meant mushy spaghetti with meatballs, and similar stuff never seen in Italy. In Northern Italian restaurants, mushy rice was substituted for the mushy spaghetti. Rolandi's Casa Rolandi restaurant reputedly introduced South Floridians to authentic and/or creative exotica like carpaccios of both raw meat and fish, al dente squid-ink-colored black pastas, firm-grained risottos, herbs other than dried oregano, and the magical full flavors and crisp crusts produced by Italy's traditional wood-fired ovens.
Then about six years ago, Rolandi split for California, and later South America. Now he's back, with an eponymous new Gables eatery divided into three areas: a stylishly minimalist main dining room (which, aside from being elegantly restrained in décor, is also restrained in noise level); a wood-accented old world/new California bar; and an informal trattoria/pizzeria with a simpler menu and décor consisting almost entirely of tomato cans. And though Rolandi's innovations of twelve years ago are now standard here, the buzz preceding the opening just after the new year was whether Rolandi's stuff would still be, as the plaque beside the front door proclaims, "Cucina Autentica e Creativa."
Even before the bread arrived, our first of two meals at Fabio Rolandi began encouragingly with a wine list that was not only interesting but extraordinarily reasonably priced. Since restaurants count on wine markups to help balance their budgets, prices of three times retail are, unfortunately, not uncommon; we plonk-lovers practically kiss the ground at upscale restaurants that merely double what we pay at a liquor store. Rolandi did better. Both Greco di tufo (light but uniquely flinty, from volcanic soil), which goes for $19 retail -- when I can find it -- and a nice dry Sancerre for which I've often shelled out around $40 in restaurants, were under $30. On a second visit, when I ordered one of the more than twelve selections available by the glass, the waiter automatically brought the less expensive of two featured pinot grigios; the Scarlatta Veneto went perfectly with the trattoria section's less complex dishes, and the two-dollar savings paid for my parking.
Naturally when a restaurant has not just one but two wood-burning ovens, and the yummy olive oil-drizzled fresh-baked flatbread to prove it, one's first question is: How's the pizza? Of the two I tried of nearly two dozen on Rolandi's menu, the Margherita (the simplest, and cheapest, choice) and the high-rent and highly imaginative Miami By Night, the first was good and the second was fabulous. The oddest difference in quality was the crust: the Night's was terrifically thin and crisp without a hint of toughness, while the Margherita's was thicker and rather limp; the two tasted almost like they'd been baked in different restaurants. Additionally, the Margherita's topping, described as the classic combo of tomato/mozzarella/basil, sported strongly oregano-flavored tomato sauce that was tasty on its own but totally overwhelmed the pizza's two lone leaves of basil. Meanwhile the Miami By Night's topping, which sounded almost too creative for a pizza -- tell me the combo of mascarpone, mozzarella, Dijon mustard, green onions, and stone crab doesn't set off all your "blackened kiwi" nouvelle catastrophe alarms -- worked beautifully. The stone crabs were delicate, their tenderness enhanced by the mascarpone's richness and the contrasting sharpness of sparely applied mustard and scallion slivers.
In fact Rolandi's brilliant balancing of unlikely ingredients made me eager to try his even weirder pizzas: two "new generation" models featuring carpaccios of beef or salmon; a barbecue pizza; a Beluga caviar pizza; or possibly even the truly "Twilight Zone" Hiroshima (mozzarella, rice, seaweed, wasabi, soy sauce, and tuna sashimi).
Among Rolandi's twelve cold and four hot appetizers, the obvious star is the antipasto sei Sapori d'Italia, a one-plate-pleases-all sampling of the six starters most people would be most tempted to try. Of the two vegetarian selections, both served room temperature rather than warm (as is typical on antipasto tables in Italy), wild mushrooms tri-filati were dominated a bit too strongly by rosemary, but the herb/olive oil dressing on grigliata mista's thin yet nicely crunchy slices of zucchini, eggplant, and multicolored peppers perfectly complemented the grill flavor.
Prosciutto di Parma came sliced Italian-farmhouse style -- i.e. about three times thicker than usual -- and had an appealing but elusive flavor, slightly smoky with a mixture of pronounced saltiness and a cured sweetness that seemed almost alcoholic. Definitely winner of the "Dish One Would Least Expect to Find On An Italian Antipasto Plate" award was a jewel-like serving of smooth mousse de foie gras in tarragon aspic, accompanied by a tangy blueberry compote; our waiter couldn't recall exactly what part of northern Italy chef Rolandi hails from, but from this dish, I'd put money on one of the French border provinces. Salmone marinato cinque terre proved to be an inventive Italian take on tiradito: thin slices of raw salmon "cooked" by the fennel/green peppercorn/sea salt-spiced marinade of sherry and coastal limoncello liqueur. It was subtly spectacular.
But the dish I dream of still was Rolandi's carpaccio di carne. While most beef carpaccios are sliced overly thin (often, one suspects, to impart tenderness to inferior meat) and dressed overly simply with nothing but olive oil and lemon, these thin but not tissuey slices of naturally tender filet mignon came drizzled with a delectable creamy-rich and slightly tart white mustard sauce reminiscent of the classic invented by Harry's Bar in Venice -- but better, due to Rolandi's luxuriantly earthy accent of white truffle.
Of two pastas tried, ravioli aperto Fabio Rolandi was superior. The "open" ravioli, more like loosely interpreted lasagna, consisted of a perfectly al dente square of regular white pasta underneath a super-sophisticated seafood stew -- half a dozen kinds of fish and shellfish in an airy egg-enriched anise-and-herb-flavored mousseline -- topped with another square of firm black pasta. Mezzaluna integrale fior di zucca, described as half-moon ravioli with sweet zucchini flowers, were also good, but the main impression was of some pumpkin-like squash filling inside the raviolis rather than any squash-flower presence in the simple sage and butter sauce. The dish's few edible flowers actually looked more like nasturtiums.
An old family recipe "from our new magic brick oven," flatbread-topped infornata di pesci Rolandi alla legna, was not bad but a very bad secondi choice after the Rolandi ravioli primo piatte; the two dishes, both seafood assortments in sauces strongly flavored with Pernod, tasted too much alike. Unfortunately it was impossible to tell this from the infornata's menu description, which said the seafood was sauced with beurre blanc -- not unless the half-inch-thick, vinegar-less, non-emulsified layer covering the seafood was some sort of interpretation of the classic French butter sauce.
Portions are large so dessert is difficult, but Rolandi's fresh fruit-garnished panna cotta, drizzled with tart mango and berry purées, was a comforting yet light meal-ender. Alternately I'd suggest another carpaccio di carne. Honest: A three-course all-carpaccio dinner (appetizer, entrée, and dessert) would not be overdoing this dish -- and would definitely be, if not autentica, creativa.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Miami dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.