Someone's in the Cucina

I once asked a former museum curator for advice about investing in art. "For collecting, buy what you like," he said. "For investing, play the stock market." "What if I already have stocks?" I asked. "Buy more," he replied.

I am of a similar opinion when I hear people refer to restaurants as "investments." Very few dining establishments actually generate significant greenbacks. Most operate on a modest or break-even basis, the restaurateur depending on lunch and dinner revenues to pay his or her salary and to cover the cost of any necessary improvements. Exceptions do exist, of course, and as Miami's dining scene becomes increasingly cosmopolitan, the restaurants have a better chance at turning healthy profits. But as a rule, the big bucks only come when restaurants are treated like real estate A i.e., bought and sold.

Alessandra Coelho, a Brazilian with no food background, was looking for business opportunities in Miami when she approached Argentine Eloi Roy, the proprietor of North Bay Village's Oggi Cafe and Deli. Having dined at Oggi, Coelho was inspired by Roy's stupendous success with the 30-odd-seat Italian cafe (where everything from the pasta to the pesto is homemade), and she invited him to be a consultant-partner in the dining space she leased on 41st Street in Miami Beach. What this first-time restaurateur failed to realize was that her 50-seat Vecchia Cucina Restaurant would prove to be less an investment and more a commitment, both financially and emotionally.

Roy, who has seen Oggi's turnover rate more than double in less than a year, broke off his dealings with Vecchia Cucina two months ago. Rudy Cuadra, a friend of Roy who supplies desserts to Oggi, assumed Roy's role at Vecchia Cucina and hired on there as chef. (Eloi Roy confirms that he and Coelho have parted ways, but he says he would rather not comment about the matter.) Though Coelho says she hopes Cuadra will imbue her restaurant with some of the same style she admired at Oggi, she doesn't intend three-month-old Vecchia Cucina to be a clone. To that end, she has already altered the menu Roy had written for her -- individual pizzas are one significant departure -- and plans more changes in the future.

Among the appetizers, carpaccio is one of the menu's new additions, a fabulous presentation of ruby-red beef layered on a large plate, latticed with a mustard sauce and capers, and rimmed with chopped lettuce. The beef was butter-soft and flavorful, complemented by shaved curls of Parmesan, cracked black pepper, and a refreshing squeeze of lemon. Although it was a specialty the night we ordered it, Coelho says the carpaccio will soon be a permanent fixture.

House salad was a generous dish of crisp, fresh romaine, sliced tomatoes, onions, and black and green olives. Dressed with a light vinaigrette, it was filling, especially accompanied by the restaurant's homemade rolls. Two of the major draws at Oggi are the freshly baked bread and the large portions, and I was glad to see those traditions reproduced here, albeit with some recipe differences that were certainly not a detraction.

An antipasto for two was a lovely salad that easily served three: marinated mushrooms and roasted red pepper, eggplant, and zucchini on a base of romaine sprinkled with vinaigrette. Two enormous juicy tomato slices added an aromatic touch when dressed with the balsamic vinegar and olive oil served on the side. Our only complaint was the paucity of the pale prosciutto; it would have been better to leave this antipasto strictly vegetarian.

Meat lovers will enjoy the veal and chicken entrees, as well as the nightly specials. We ordered veal piccata, two large, perfectly cooked medallions topped with a tangy, lemon-and-caper concoction and served with broccoli on the side. But pastas are the real focus here. Agnolotti panna, round ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese, were finished with an excellent cream sauce that clung but didn't clump. The tortelloni bicolore, filled with sun-dried tomatoes and ricotta, were served with a pink tomato-and-cream sauce that was slightly too faint but delicious nonetheless. We tried these rich offerings on a combination plate that also included fettuccine marinara, a necessary, zesty contrast. (This dish was actually a happy accident, a fault of the kitchen; my guest, who had ordered only the tortelloni bicolore as his dinner, graciously accepted the substitute.)

Penne amatriciana was vibrant, tomato sauce combined with chewy pancetta and minced onion over short, slant-cut tubes. Despite some discrepancies, we also liked spaghettini saludable, threaded with chopped tomatoes and slices of nicely browned garlic. Though listed in the description on the menu, basil was noticeably absent, and the pasta hadn't been well drained, which made for a watery entree. Another faux pas was the substitution of plain spaghetti for the whole-wheat angel hair. And because Vecchia Cucina's list of pastas is identical to Oggi's, I assumed all the varieties would be fresh, not dried. I suspect that other diners visit the restaurant with the same expectation. Some dishes, however, including the spaghetti, are prepared with dried pasta. Coelho confirms that Oggi no longer supplies her eatery with its trademark fresh pasta and acknowledges the potential confusion. She says her chef is working to rectify the situation.

A more varied wine selection might also help. When we asked to see the list, we were simply told there was a choice of Mondavi Woodbridge cabernet or Valpolicella.

Despite its quest to establish an identity -- or perhaps because of it -- Vecchia Cucina has a half-finished feel. Walls are painted in rosy terra-cotta tones but the four or five prints that hang on them are unframed and slightly askew. Charming cut-glass oil lamps dress up the tables but they sit in hotel-issue ashtrays. Rolls arrive in elegant cloth-covered baskets but butter pats are served, still clad in cardboard and wax paper, on a saucer.

These stylistic contradictions are easily rectified. Service, though, is another story. Well-meaning waiters are polite and attentive, but they are also forgetful. Our order of a mozzarella marinara appetizer never made it from the waiter to the kitchen. A nightly special described as chicken and broccoli was actually a spaghetti dish. One waiter announced the specials in such a soft, heavily accented voice that we gave up trying to understand and ordered off the menu. Another waiter felt it his obligation to straighten our water glasses and bread plates every time he brought a dish; he hovered and had very busy hands.

As an investment, Vecchia Cucina clearly is no sure thing. Nor is the restaurant as potentially profitable as a fast-growing stock. But with a little time and experience, it may yet be a work of art.


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