Something Old, Something Noodle

One year, when my parents claimed to be too tired to go out on their anniversary and consume a four-star meal, my sister and I decided to supply it for them in the comfort of their own dining room. We could be as elegant as any restaurant, we told each other. So we issued invitations to Casa Karetnick, printed up place cards and a menu, and set the table with my mother's linen, crystal, and china.

My memory tells me my sister was twelve and I was ten, but we were probably a little older than that, given the level of difficulty of the recipe we chose from my mother's copy of Larousse Gastronomique -- a whole capon, stuffed with its own wine-sauteed liver, then baked in a gigantic domed pastry shell. The trick to a successful dish, we read, was in boning and skinning the breast-heavy chicken before wrapping it in the buttery dough. If we left the bones in, the cookbook warned, the heat would cause the legs to kick through the crust, screwing up the cooking time and ruining the presentation.

Ruination, of course, was not in our plans, so we followed the recipe to the letter. We divided the tasks according to age and experience: My sister handled the liver concoction and delicate pastry, and I got stuck with the bird. Though the instructions were relatively easy to interpret, I spent hours jimmying the bones free from the flesh without leaving visible scars of dissection. This may explain why it was that, with floral-print dish towels folded over our arms, we eventually served my poor starving parents their anniversary dinner close to midnight.

What stands out most clearly to me about that meal was picking at the remains behind the scenes, impressed for the first time by a culinary accomplishment (time managementwise, the dinner wasn't a success, but the food sure was good). My sister, meanwhile, recalls the labor-intensive dinner party that earned us cooking duty at every family gathering thereafter. And my parents remember doing the sinkful of dishes afterward, their napping daughters pillowed on the kitchen table.

I was reminded of this experience while dining at Bocca di Rosa, the five-month-old Italian restaurant located in the former Buccione space in Coconut Grove. Precocious and imaginative, Bocca di Rosa is Casa Karetnick in reverse -- a sophisticated dining room with pretensions to hominess.

Situated on Bird Road just out of tourists' reach, Bocca di Rosa depends on Grove and Gables locals and therefore thinks of itself as a neighborhood restaurant. In some aspects, it is. Consider: Customers seem to know both the staff and one another; the dishwasher, having shown artistic aptitude, was promoted to plate decorator for desserts; and the menu exhorts diners to "line up your food stamps" for a particularly expensive item and recommends that if one should order the dish called "devil's chicken" one should be prepared to eat it with one's hands.

But consider also that the particularly expensive item is an appetizer assortment of Scottish salmon, Beluga caviar, and smoked rainbow trout entitled antipasto Marxista/Leninista, and that the devil's chicken ain't exactly a chicken: We're talking a semiboned Cornish hen, pressed and marinated in rosemary, black pepper, red chili flakes, and olive oil. At these not-quite-neighborhood prices, which range up to the midtwenties for an entree, neither diner nor restaurateur can afford to fail. And while a sense of humor might be handy but not absolutely essential to eat here, deep pockets are. So if you're that kind of local, then you really will feel right at home at Bocca di Rosa. (By the way, the hen was the only dish we didn't like. A singed, spread-eagled bird, it was moist and juicy but tasted burnt; the sauteed eggplant-and-tomato side dish that accompanied it, though, was delicious.)

Owners Peter Bortolatti and Judith Leon, along with chef-partner Giorgio Baldari, named Bocca di Rosa, which means "mouth of the rose," after a prostitute who figures as the protagonist in an Italian ballad written by one of Bortolatti's friends. Apparently this courtesan makes love for the, well, love of it, rather than for money. To my mind this makes her pretty unsuccessful, but Bortolatti means to equate his vocation with hers in that both have a passion for their work.

His passion shows in several ways. First, he converted the old Buccione, a falling-down space he wanted despite its having been, as he says, "possessed by evil" -- an apt description for a restaurant whose owner allegedly murdered a tax collector awhile ago, though Bortolatti is referring to the tasteless decor. He and Leon redid the entire 80-seat restaurant, painting the walls green and taupe, installing marble and light woods, and adding stained-glass windows for a colorful finishing touch.

Service is another arena where the restaurant shines. The staff opens doors for you, fusses over the tablecloths (a crease in ours prompted our host to insist we move to another table), and delivers bread, water, wine, and dinner with skilled aplomb. Though it should be the norm, polite and attentive service is still a novelty in South Florida, which is perhaps one reason the room seemed to be filled with regulars the night I dined.

The wine list here is unusual not in that it features only wines from Italy, but in that it covers that country region by region. You won't find a pinot grigio under a generic heading like "whites"; instead, you'll spy one bottle under Toscana (Tuscany), another two under Friuli, and so on. Because the wine list changes often, and because many of these bottles are unfamiliar to Americans, it's a good idea to ask the management to recommend a bottle.

You'll have to make up your own mind about dinner, a difficult endeavor -- an already extensive, creative menu is supplemented by a long list of specials. We ordered one of the latter, a combination of gnocchi and tortelloni in a light brown porcini mushroom sauce, as an appetizer. These were quite possibly the best gnocchi I've ever had, airy and supple as clouds. The meat-filled tortelloni also were delicious, al dente dumplings whose folds expertly caught the rich sauce (though one of the nuggets turned out to be filled with cheese). Another special pasta dish that evening was just as wonderful: ravioli Roberto Baggio, named after an Italian soccer star. Two kinds of ravioli -- two rectangular spinach ravioli stuffed with ricotta and four squares bursting with ground porcini mushrooms that tasted like veal -- were magnificently made. (All pasta is hand-rolled on the premises.) A fresh tomato sauce gave the cheese ravioli some welcome acidity, while a subtle sage and butter sauce complemented the mushroom ones perfectly.

Pastas ordered as starters were split in the kitchen, a nicety that's not unheard of in these parts. But I was amazed when our zuppa alle rose was brought out in four bowls so we could all have a taste. This broth was fantastic too, a lightly creamed potato-mushroom, silky and delicate. Flavored just slightly with natural rose essences, the puree was garnished with edible rose petals, a pretty and unobtrusive touch.

An interesting appetizer was prepared at the table. Bagna cauda sabauda was an arrangement of seafood the quality of which one frequently sees in Japanese restaurants -- raw tuna and salmon, plus a lightly poached shrimp and sea scallops. The slices of fish, all excellently prepared, were perched on a bed of crisp julienned fennel, celery, and carrots and garnished with lemon wedges. On the side of the table, the waiter set up a small Sterno affair to keep a dish of butter, garlic, anchovies, and black pepper warm (bagna cauda means "hot bath"); as in fondue, the object here was to dip the seafood into the scampi-like dressing. Though we couldn't detect anchovies in the mix and found the butter a little overpowering on the mild tuna and salmon, we enjoyed the novelty of this traditional, regional (Piemonte) dish.

I usually try to avoid sampling too many specials at a restaurant I'm reviewing, simply because they may never be available again. But as with Osteria del Teatro on Miami Beach (one of my favorite Italian restaurants), these items are often the truest catches, particularly when it comes to fish. We yielded to the temptation of one such plate, tegame di pesce allo zafferano, a combination of calamari, shrimp, swordfish, and striped bass. The mound of squid (sans tentacles) and flaky fish fillets were coated in a rich, sun-yellow saffron sauce that offered aroma as well as taste. Creamy, parsley-scented mashed potatoes were ideal for soaking up the sauce.

The red wine sauce that dressed a medium-rare filetto Tiziano, a filet of beef named for the painter Titian (who was famous for his use of vivid red tones), operated in the same fashion as the saffron sauce, engaging all the senses. Tinged reddish-brown, the juicy meat had been tenderized by the alcohol and accented with rosemary and white peppercorns. A powerful meal, accompanied as it was by fagottini, two steamed romaine lettuce leaves rolled around a melting center of Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs bound with egg. All main courses were also partnered by a plate of steaming buttered zucchini, carrots, and new potatoes.

The dishwasher really does a handy job on the dessert plates, creating beautiful signature roses out of sauces and creams. A slice of crumbly berry tart not only looked but tasted great in its finery, though a gelatinized piece of chocolate mousse cake (billed on the menu simply as chocolate mousse) was a culinary wolf in sheep's clothing.

Bocca di Rosa may be just a touch pricey to be a true neighborhood spot, but then ask your favorite call girl and she'll tell you that passion, especially on a regular basis, doesn't come cheap. Take into account the innovation, the level of the restaurateurs' commitment, and the quality care, and return visits to the Mouth of the Rose become just another installment on the good-life plan.

Bocca di Rosa
2833 Bird Rd, Coconut Grove; 444-4222. Open nightly from 6:00 to midnight; Friday and Saturday until 1:00 a.m.

Zuppa alle rose
Bagna cauda sabauda
Filetto Tiziano
Tegame di pesce allo zafferano


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