The Palm Plaza Shopping Center is just another nondescript strip mall, one of hundreds, maybe thousands, marring Miami's landscape. My feeling has always been that if you're going to uglify a neighborhood, the least you can do is offer good food, and Palm Plaza does just that. It's got Chinese, Korean-Chinese, Cuban, and Italian restaurants all lined up in a row. The last two ethnic eateries have more in common than one might think: La Casita serves solid homestyle fare at very affordable prices and has two other locations; the same is true of its new neighbor, Oggi Caffe, though one of Oggi's branches goes by the name Caffe Da Vinci.
This Oggi is decorated simply but tastefully, with red brick, dark woods, white-linen tablecloths, fresh flowers, and posters of Italian aperitifs. A dividing wall with mahogany-framed, dome-shape fenestras separates the bar area to the left from the dining room to the right. When the seats are empty the space seems spare, but when filled it feels just like a restaurant should -- comfortable, relaxing, no distractions. Well, maybe two distractions: Someone's birthday brought on a blast of you-know-which Beatles song over the stereo, along with a manual strobing of the lights. And those same stereo speakers subjected me to the Gipsy Kings on three successive visits, which wouldn't be quite so bad if every other restaurant hadn't been playing the same damn tape for the past five (ten?) years. Speaking of which, I doubt there's a dining critic alive who couldn't recite the lyrics of any Sade song.
Enough about music. The food here is wonderful, if indistinguishable from the original Oggi in North Bay Village (can't vouch for Da Vinci), as well as from a few other proverbial "inexpensive Italian" restaurants that have proven so successful. The predictable menu contains no break-out dishes that will entice you to brave the Palmetto on a daily basis, but neither is there anything less than fresh and appetizing. Starters are textbook takes on modern antipasti standards, like fried calamari, mussels marinara, a couple of carpaccios, and portobello al balsamico ($7.50), a clump of raw spinach topped by meaty mushroom slices sautéed with roasted peppers, garlic, and balsamic vinegar. Involtini di mozzarella ($6.50) is a bit more involved, melted cheese and roasted peppers oozing from two cigar-size eggplant rolls in a sun-dried-tomato-flecked balsamic sauce. It would have been better had the eggplant not been undercooked (a recurring restaurant blunder), and the sauce, well, Dorothy Parker might have described these last two appetizers as "running the gamut of flavors from A to B." I'd only add that I wish I had a dime for every time I ate a dish dashed with balsamic vinegar while listening to -- the Gipsy Kings.
One of the best starters was a special, vitello tonnato. The balancing of carpaccio-thin slices of rare veal topped with a sauce made from puréed tuna, capers, and anchovies is, as you can imagine, prone to lopsidedness, but the soft and mellow tuna flavor clung to the tender veal like those cuddling kittens and pups depicted on cute postcards. Another winning beginning was a pasta entrée of the day, crabmeat ravioli, cut down to starter size ($6.95). Four homemade semolina circles, half colored with black squid ink, half plain, enveloped luscious (but not "lump") crabmeat, a buttery lobster bisque sauce ever-so-lightly overlapping the crab.
We tried two other pastas as main courses: fettuccine Silvestri ($9.95), featuring homemade noodles sautéed with arugula, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic; and tagliatelle Alessandra ($9.50), a wider cut of the same pasta with plenty of pancetta and onions in cream sauce. Parmesan is spooned over just about anything upon request, and while I know the prices here dictate a certain cutting of corners (all pasta dishes are under ten dollars), they really should consider using a finer grade of grated cheese. Another minor gripe: The menu lists six red wines by the glass, but only three are offered: merlot, cabernet, and chianti. One needn't be a viniculturist to want more choices than that.
Oggi offers a quintet of salads: caesar; spinach with tomatoes and goat cheese; caprese with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil; a blend of radicchio and arugula with raspberry vinaigrette; and house greens with olives and balsamic dressing ($4.50-$6.50). Not a bad one among them, though the tomatoes were the tasteless supermarket type, always a letdown, but coming across them in Italian restaurants makes me wonder: What would their grandmothers say? Then again the Oggi grandmothers are most likely from Argentina.
Chicken, veal, and seafood dishes make up the eleven nonpasta dinners, all accompanied by crisp broccoli florets, herb-roasted spears of new potatoes, and a bright -orange purée of sweet potato and carrot. We would have preferred at least one of the five chicken entrées to be something other than boneless breast, but the pollo al basilico ($13) and pollo tricolore ($13.95) were both deftly treated, the former a paillard sautéed with lemon-butter sauce and basil, the latter less pounded, grilled, and topped with an arugula-radicchio salad. A different salad topping of tomatoes, basil, garlic, and olive oil comes over lightly breaded veal ($14.50), which is offered parmigiana and marsala style, too. Seafood choices are limited to grilled salmon fillet with champagne sauce, and a combination of fish and shellfish grilled with a splash of olive oil and rosemary (both $14.50), though the evening special usually revolves around something out of water. On one occasion it was risotto with shrimp, clams, mussels, and calamari moistly nestled in overcooked grains of arborio rice ($15.95).
The owners don't seem to be around much, but manager Rafael Parra keeps a sharp eye on things. Service is crisply professional, particularly at lunch; daytime business is much brisker than dinner, so naturally that's when the veteran waiters work. Lunch prices are better, too, the aforementioned pollo al basilico, with a side of pasta or, as we chose, pesto risotto (this one cooked impeccably), a plate of salad (or soup), and a basket of Oggi's always-fresh sourdough rolls for just $8.25.
Many neighborhoods are blessed with a commendable and affordable Italian restaurant. Oggi now fills that bill for the area surrounding the Mall of the Americas. If this is close to where you live, or if you find yourself here for one reason or another, you won't do any better for lunch or dinner. And there is one very good thing about strip malls: lots of free parking.
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