Sooner or Cater

Catering and restaurateuring are similar occupations. Both involve serving tasty meals to finicky clientele. Both require putting in punishing hours. Both demand creativity. It should follow, then, that the skills learned in these jobs are interchangeable A that the caterer who so desires can also be a restaurateur, and vice versa.

Last year, after a pricey meal in a Fort Lauderdale catering establishment-turned-restaurant, I stopped believing that premise. In lieu of handing out menus, the waiter asked us to approach the refrigerated case, where (admittedly beautiful) platters of food awaited his explanation. He then took our order while we were standing up, deli-style. Only after we requested and were denied some changes regarding our entrees did we realize that the plates in the refrigerator were actual meals, not samples. That experience pointed out the philosophical difference between the two professions A in catering, most of the eats are prepared well beforehand.

The first thing I did at Giacomo, a nearly two-year-old downtown caterer and lunchery that recently added dinner to its French-Italian sandwich menu, was check out the deli case. I was relieved to find nary a dish iced in there, not even a salad. I was also pleased to be seated on one of the wood-slatted folding chairs at a matching table covered by squares of green cloth napkins, to be handed a plastic-coated menu, and to have my water and wine poured for me by the waiter. Clearly, when owner Giacomo Ardisson advertised "Now serving dinner," he meant it.

Ardisson deserves credit not only for undertaking the difficult transition from catering to restaurateuring, but also for filling a long-standing gap. The restaurant's small veranda augments a 45-seat dining room painted dark green and maroon and hung with decorative copper molds. Other downtown restaurants ought to consider outdoor seating; after the buzz of rush hour, the streets here are actually quite pleasant.

The most appealing dishes on the all-Italian dinner menu are the del giornos: Every category -- from antipasti to dolci -- lists a special of the day. The semolina section alone features three: pasta of the day, ravioli of the day, and risotto of the day. It made the waiter's job a little harder, but at least he didn't insist we get up and look at the dishes while he explained them.

We started with a fish of the day, fried calamari, in an appetizer-size portion. The succulent squid were battered and deep-fried, then served sans marinara sauce as if to highlight the crisp, grease-free crust. A slice of lemon and a sprinkle of chopped tomatoes sufficed for garnish; an overdose of salt was the only flaw. We hoped to continue celebrating the day with the carpaccio del giorno but found the tuna was cut as thick as sushi, and stringy rather than thin and lacy. Slices of the rose-color fish were soaking in golden olive oil, an effect that might have been sunset-pretty but was marred by haphazard arrangement. Strips of fresh basil and a round of lemon provided a clean breath here.

We left the specials temporarily behind for a foray into the standard menu. A first course of cape sante e gamberi, sea scallops and shrimp, was a pleasant saute with soft leeks, sage, and chopped tomatoes. The two jumbo shrimp were especially good, mild and lobster-textured. The handful of scallops had a funny, frayed look around the edges but tasted fine, served poured over a slice of the same fresh French baguette that comes in the breadbasket.

Baked ricotta on a bed of vegetables was a nice contrast to the shellfish. Two slices of oven-warm ricotta decorated grilled zucchini, red pepper, tomato, and eggplant. The spreadable cheese, flecked with herbs, was also delicious on hunks of coarse Italian baguette, the other breadbasket filler.

We found a pair of cool salads to be a refreshing intermediate course. The campagnola was an arrangement of green arugula, fresh white mushrooms, and crumbly shavings of grana cheese. The pungent grana, a hard cheese named for its grainy texture, was delicious over the snap of arugula, made even more so by a dusting of fresh ground pepper. Though the campagnola was served with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, it was even more delightful with the thick walnut dressing that accompanied the san giorgio salad, a bowlful of chopped Belgian endive overlaid with slices of cucumber and plum tomatoes.

Pastas were main-course portions. Tender ravioli filled with ricotta cheese were an even dozen -- enough tasty pillows to cushion the most demanding appetite. The surprise here, as in the calamari, was the sauce. Rather than a basic tomato, Giacomo scattered the pasta with a dice of zucchini in olive oil. Dollops of melting mozzarella added the finishing touch to a light but filling dish. A plate of farfalle was also generous, the bow-tie egg noodles interspersed with mussels. Disconcertingly overpowering in themselves, the dozen mussels' flavor was matched by equal amounts of garlic and Parmesan, which encrusted the farfalle in place of a sauce and resulted in a powerful concoction that could have used toning down.

Risotto of the day, gorgonzola and mushroom, just plain needed practice. The rice was watery rather than creamy, as if too much cooking liquid had been added. The result was mushy, the distinctive gorgonzola flavor diluted. A good dousing of salt and pepper and an extra charge of grated Parmesan helped somewhat.

As with everything else, main courses are subject to change, though chicken, beef, and fish preparations are usually present. The night we visited, both lamb and veal chops were available. We requested the lamb. "Single- or double-cut?" the waiter inquired. Double, definitely. No one could resist the thick, juicy chop, lightly marbled, grilled to medium pinkness. Lamb so big it was practically sheep. Quartered white pan-fried potatoes provided crunchy relief to so much meat.

A bamboo basket filled with steamed vegetables and fish was an elaborate composition but one that proved disappointing. Everything was overcooked to the point of petrification: A fillet of salmon was anemic and pasty. Flakes of grouper had practically fossilized. The same vegetables that had appeared grilled with the baked ricotta buoyed the fish but added little flavor to the fillets. A butterflied shrimp, still sweet despite a certain toughness, was an unexpected bonus. The highlight of the basket was a langostino, its tail split like a lobster's, its distinctive flavor a boon.

My companions persuaded me to break my tiramisu fast for dessert, and I regretted it -- the ladyfinger pastry was soaked with too much espresso. Better was the chef's special cake of the day, a dense but moist yellow layer cake glazed with strawberries.

Giacomo's wine list is small but selective, with a half-dozen each of reds and whites. Our choice, a 1994 Zenato pinot grigio ($17), was fruity, its resiny flavor resonating with the shellfish dishes in particular. One warning: When you think about ordering a second bottle, consider that the restaurant doesn't accept credit cards.

What it does take is its time. Despite its catering and corporate breakfast/lunch roots, Giacomo cooks its dinners to order. And while not every dish succeeds, the establishment, breaking ground on Brickell, has the savvy heart of a businessman and the soul of a pioneer.


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