New Yorkers seem to understand: Cigarette smoking in restaurants should be discouraged. Disallowed. Okay, banned. I really should be more prudent when it comes to using the b-word, because I believe that U.S. citizens have the right -- as long as cigarettes are legal -- to light up. Our city certainly harbors more than its fair share of smokers, a circumstance that can very likely be attributed to its international population. (Many Europeans and South Americans appear to have fewer hangups and health concerns about cigarettes than Americans do.) And I have no problem with diners enjoying a discreet postprandial smoke or two -- hey, I used to do it myself. But in the past few weeks I've noticed folks taking this particular freedom to extremes. Smoking in designated nonsmoking areas. Tapping ashes in glasses and grinding out butts on china. Coming to an eatery not to order a meal but to drink coffee and chain-smoke cigarettes. In other words, using a restaurant as if it were a bar.
What I find most annoying of all, though, is when a restaurant's management allows people to smoke in a small, poorly ventilated space. I would have enjoyed almost everything about my meal at Surfside's Via Veneto Cafe had it not been for the haze of smoke that poisoned the air in the 25-seat Italian place. If the ceiling fans had been turned on, the fog might have dissipated somewhat in this long, narrow dining room. But the truth is that regardless of whether or not the fans were on, the restaurant is just too small for smokers and nonsmokers to dine together comfortably. We rushed through our meal and contemplated skipping dessert, all because we wanted to leave -- and breathe.
And that's a shame, because the fare here is exceptional, and the prices more than reasonable. Though Via Veneto has been open for breakfast and lunch for a year, Brazilian owner Marcel Galha, who was formerly a partner in the failed Vecchia Cucina on 41st Street in Miami Beach, decided to stop serving breakfast and start serving dinner about two months ago. While this move put Via Veneto in direct competition with a trio of immensely popular nearby Italian cafes -- Cafe Ragazzi, Specchio Cafe, and Matteo & Alfredo -- it also allows chefs Vasco Cechii and Renato Rigo to showcase their abilities with more complex dishes. Galha plans to push back the deli case at the rear of the restaurant in order to make room for more tables and chairs and, with any luck, a homier decor. White shiny tablecloths are now the extent of Via Veneto's interior decoration.
If you go, my advice, besides taking a respirator, is to start with the terrific carpaccio. Thinly sliced beef, a lovely (not bloody) reddish-pink, was draped over a mound of peppery arugula. A drizzle of truffle oil gave the cool, mild meat a musky flavor, which was complemented by freshly squeezed lemon and shaved Parmesan.
The appetizer list is modest and familiar -- the restaurant boasts the slogan "old-fashioned Italian cuisine" -- and offers, in addition to the carpaccio, prosciutto and melon, bruschetta, and an antipasto. Other than soups, including an insipid pasta e fagioli that needed copious amounts of salt and a punch of pepper to flavor the mealy white beans, mussels were the only hot starter. Served on the blue-lipped half shell, the six large mussels were doused in a tomato, garlic, and white wine saute. The sauce was delicious, particularly when soaked up by the accompanying garlic bread, but I thought the mussels themselves a little fishy.
The caesar salad is a fine way to begin. The eggless dressing was nonetheless hearty and pungent, ripe with garlic and salty anchovy flavor. The romaine was crisp and sweet, the herbed croutons homemade and crunchy, and the shaved Parmesan garnish a reiteration of the grated cheese in the salad dressing.
We continued to find success with the entrees. Out of nine pastas, we picked the most unusual-sounding one, fusilli bellavista -- noodle twists prepared with grilled chicken, pine nuts, goat cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes. The pasta turned out to be penne, and the goat cheese was absent, yet the dish was still gratifying. A dark, rich sauce of balsamic vinegar flecked with sun-dried tomatoes coated the pasta and was tempered by the buttery pine nuts (one of which turned out to be a lemon seed) and boneless, meltingly tender chicken.
Classic spaghetti carbonara also proved to be an excellent choice. The long al dente noodles nested in a sauce comprising cream, eggs, and Parmesan. The dish also featured so much chopped pancetta that I could have happily eaten it for breakfast. In fact, I did -- the leftovers, that is, straight out of the fridge the next day.
We didn't have any problems finishing a plate of veal scaloppine al Marsala, if only because the three veal medallions were the size of quarters. Still, considering the $11.75 price tag, there's not much to gripe about. Dusted with flour and sauteed in the winy sauce, the veal was tasty, light, and succulent, earthy with sliced mushrooms. All entrees included two side dishes: cubed, fried potatoes and buttered string beans with cooked baby carrots. These were fresh, and, given the tiny medallions, helped to sate the appetite.
The superb red snapper fillet (a special) was a larger, more satisfying portion. Scented more than flavored with ginger and lemon, the broiled snapper was juicy and moist. Only one fish dish -- salmon with honey-mustard glaze, fried leeks, and couscous -- is listed on the menu.Seafood and fish are mostly offered as specials, which the server lists for you.
Service, while informed, is unpretentious, and were it not for the parties of smokers filling the restaurant, we would have been content to linger over a flaky, house-made apple tart topped with vanilla ice cream. But the haze was making my eyes tear, and one of my guests began to choke up as a result of her asthma, so we wolfed down the tart and ice cream, paid the bill, and left. I don't want to be any more of a hypocrite than I already am, and I don't want to toss any constitutional freedoms out the window -- just some irritating pollutants. So I'll say only this: As long as Galha's and other restaurateurs' customers are allowed to blow smoke in a limited space, so will I.
Via Veneto Cafe
9415 Harding Ave., Surfside; 861-2211. Lunch daily from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Dinner nightly from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 11:00 p.m.
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Snapper with ginger and lemon