In the past, the areas around the University of Miami have failed to cater to the undergraduate, live-on-campus student population, which numbers more than 8000. Defined on the east by busy South Dixie Highway and on the west by homes, the campus's perimeter has always lacked a certain collegiate vitality -- in other words, next to no establishments that serve the modest tastes of students. Cool affordable restaurants, bars, boutiques, and coffeehouses within walking distance have been few and far between. (Sure, there's always South Beach, with its multitude of dance clubs and lizard lounges. The Grove has emerged as a postadolescent playground. And Miracle Mile is ideal for Parents' Weekend dinners. But none of these regions actually abuts the university. For students without transportation, they're often out of reach.)
In the past year or so, however, the border along South Dixie has been evolving. While the area will never have the charm of Harvard Square in Cambridge or Georgetown in Washington, D.C., at least students now have the option of accessible entertainment other than dorm-room beer bashes. The Shops at Sunset Place, a huge new megamall with a 24-screen movie theater, is nearing completion, and branches of the popular hangouts Starbucks and Einstein Bros. Bagels have opened recently. Meanwhile, several fairly new -- and fairly decent -- restaurants, including Fishbone Grill and the Italian cafes Trattoria Sole and Oliveto, have been attracting pocketbook-conscious students.
Sfizi Italian Grill, located directly across from the main entrance to the campus, is the latest budget eatery to debut in the neighborhood. A pizza place for more than fifteen years, the joint was refurbished by new owner Mariano Del Duca, who has a fair amount of experience in the restaurant business -- from the outside in. Over the years he has built nineteen of them. In 1991 he decided to start running them as well, opening Bravo and the first (now-defunct) Sfizi, both in Fort Lauderdale. He chose this new location because he lives in nearby Kendall, and because UM students and professors would seem to be a captive audience. At first glance Sfizi, which serves beer and wine in addition to pizza and pasta, seems the ideal UM haunt.
Prices are undeniably attractive. The atmosphere is casual. So is the service, ranging from inexperienced to indifferent. At lunch one day we had to flag down our waiter after a lengthy wait.
"We're ready to order," we informed him.
"Oh," he replied. "So whaddaya want?"
As for the decor, so many plastic vegetables and fake plants hang from the ceiling that you get the feeling that if the restaurant ever caught fire, it wouldn't burn -- it would melt. In fact, the ceiling is so busy it draws your attention away from your plate. And this, we discovered after a couple of visits, is not necessarily a bad thing.
Unless you're munching on pizzas, that is, which are available in three sizes (large, medium, and individual) and which tend to be a bit more gourmet than the ones ordered in from Papa John's. We enjoyed the la naturale, a thin-crust number baked without tomato sauce and topped with roasted peppers, artichokes, black olives, broccoli, spinach, basil, and elastic mozzarella cheese. Health-food proponents can order a whole wheat crust; purists can opt for the plain margherita, a tomato-mozzarella pie. Like the pizzas, calzoni (or "pizza turnovers," as they are called on the menu) are crusty and freshly made. Ours came with chunky marinara sauce on the side. The acidity of the tomatoes cut the heaviness of a fiorentino calzone that oozed spinach, basil, ricotta, Parmesan, and mozzarella.
Aside from the pizzas and calzoni, however, the Italian fare at Sfizi can be unremarkable. On one visit the restaurant was out of steak al verde, two thinly cut sirloin steaks dotted with garlic, basil, pine nuts, asparagus, and sun-dried tomato sauce. We settled for a meatball panino, or sandwich, but the contents were as skimpy as a size-A bosom in a halter top; a single sliced meatball was dwarfed by the bread. Although a tangy marinara sauce and melted mozzarella improved matters, the meatball itself was so replete with filler that it looked -- and tasted -- like Spam. The accompanying crinkle-cut French fries took us back to campus food-court days. All that was missing was a two-prong red plastic fork.
A caesar salad topped with grilled chicken was even more dismal. The chopped romaine was warm and soggy, as if it had been sitting around in a hot kitchen. The dressing was anchovy-heavy and nicely pungent, and a sprinkle of toasted almonds was an original touch. But the boneless breast of chicken, cut into strips, appeared to be the victim of arson, and a handful of stale croutons seemed to be poured straight from a box. Better to stick with the house salad that accompanies all entrees, a collection of romaine, cucumbers, shaved white onions, and chickpeas splashed with an oregano vinaigrette.
We were also mildly disappointed by a flavorful dinnertime appetizer of stuffed mushrooms. Two medium-size caps were brimming with a mixture of bell peppers and eggplant, a concoction pleasantly reminiscent of ratatouille. But there simply wasn't enough. And the 'shrooms were blanketed by the ubiquitous mozzarella, as was a pounded fillet of veal Parmesan. The breaded meat of this main course was hearty, dampened with tomato sauce. Unfortunately, the veal had been left in the oven too long, turning the cheese brown and tough.
Inattention to proper cooking also ruined a breast of chicken al gorgonzola. Exploding with blue cheese and prosciutto, the poultry was practically parchment. The stuffing mingled beautifully with a Madeira-mushroom sauce, but we couldn't get past the hardened bird, which seemed to repel our knives and forks.
Moderately priced seafood dishes are always a draw for me -- fresh fish and shellfish needn't be expensive, especially in South Florida. But no one wants to save a few bucks only to regret it when the dish arrives. I give Sfizi's calamari marinara main course an A: The squid rings were plentiful, pliant, and a bargain at $10.95. But an entree of salmone alla spagnola was an instant F. The fillet, sprinkled with olives, capers, and chopped tomatoes, was rank and inedible.
Entrees were partnered by pasta, either fettuccine or linguine. The restaurant also offers more than a dozen pasta dishes, all checking in at less than ten bucks. We chose to share gnocchi sorrentina as a starter, but were dismayed by the commercial appearance and flavor of the potato dumplings. Served as a casserole with tomato sauce and an unnecessary quilt of mozzarella, the gnocchi were merely mediocre.
A selection of layer cakes and cheesecakes for dessert -- none of which seemed particularly Italian -- and the option of sipping cappuccino didn't inspire us, perhaps because Starbucks is right next door with freshly baked goods and coffee ground to order. Del Duca might want to lay in a supply of Italian pastries to combat the potential loss of business.
Even more, he needs to pay closer attention to the quality of his fare. If Del Duca aspires for Sfizi (which means "craving") to be more than a pizza joint, he needs to take a look at the dishes his kitchen is producing. Right now the only craving customers might harbor is one to escape.
Sfizi Italian Grill
1118 S Dixie Hwy, Coral Gables; 305-665-8899. Lunch and dinner Monday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m; Saturday from 1:00 to 11:00 p.m. Dinner Sunday from 4:00 to 11:00 p.m.
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Grilled chicken caesar salad
Chicken al gorgonzola
Salmone alla spagnola