Style and Substance

Barocco is the style of art and architecture typified by scrolls, curves, and other elaborate ornamentation. In English, we call it baroque, having stolen that word from the French as we did with so many haute things. But even the French are not above such linguistic appropriation - they lifted the word (barocco) from the Italians, as did the owners of a six-month-old South Beach restaurant in the Park Central Hotel, site of the former, and luckless, Lucky's. Miami's Barocco Beach Restaurant is an offshoot of a Tribeca eatery said to be something of a salon for New York City's arts community, and so it was with visions of eccentric artists in eclectic attire that my dining companion and I set out for Ocean Drive on a recent Sunday. We were curious as to the group we might find, but we needn't have wondered. Except for a few folks on the front porch sipping drinks, Barocco Beach was nearly deserted at nine in the evening.

The first thing we noticed was the lack of baroque touches. Aside from patterned drapes and chairs, the restaurant's two large rooms look forlorn, like a ballroom the morning after a ball. The too-small, pea-green mirrors on the walls and the cold gray-and-white terrazzo floors only contribute to the institutional look. From our gray banquette in the deepest recesses of the back room, we could barely hear the piped-in jazz, and in the dim light of hanging, metal-shaded globes, we had trouble reading the menu.

What we could glean was an emphasis on starters, with at least a dozen appetizers on the daily-changing menu. Pasta and seafood entrees dominate, with a few chicken, lamb, and beef dishes to balance the scales. As with its sister restaurant in New York, trattoria items prevail, and the chef leans toward a combination of fresh seasonings and wood-fire grilling. We perused the starters - all the Italian classics were included, from carpaccio to antipasto to fried calamari, plus a few unusual items, such as fennel salad with Parmesan, and a combination of grilled eggplant, peppers, and zucchini. Prices are reasonable, too, with a nine-dollar carpaccio topping the list of mostly five- to six-dollar appetizers.

Giving in to yet another of his anchovy attacks, my companion ordered bruschetta alla Romana, a thick slice of Italian bread topped with anchovies, melted mozzarella, and fresh basil leaves so big they might have grown on trees. The cheese was scented from the wood grill, the anchovies added another boost - a slightly salty, fishy fillip - and the basil contributed a certain sweetness. All in all, it was terrific, and we ate every bit of it even though we'd only just enjoyed a large basket of crusty, fresh-from-the-oven bread. We were already full, and we were only down the price of the bruschetta (a mere three dollars, and another version with fresh tomatoes, garlic, and basil costs only two dollars!).

But duty called. And besides, we'd already ordered. My companion had meandered through the ten- to twelve-dollar pasta listings - homemade spinach ravioli with tomato and basil or butter and fresh sage, black linguine with tomato, shrimp, and hot peppers, and homemade pappardelle (wide, flat noodles) with duck and black olives, among others. Just as he began lusting for the pasta with duck, the waiter informed him the dish was not available. My dining companion was obviously angry, he would have preferred earlier notice so he didn't get his heart (and his tastebuds) set on that one offering. The waiter finally broke the awkward silence by suggesting the ravioli. My companion ordered the spaghettini.

The pasta played a large role in lightening his mood, if not his girth. The spaghettini with mixed seafood and tomatoes boasted mussels and clams in their shells, in addition to shrimp and squid combined with fresh tomatoes in the sauce. At $12, this delicious dish is one of the few true bargains on South Beach. (Wine prices at Barocco Beach are reasonable, too, with most ranging between $14 and $22. A crisp Casa Defrau Soave, a $14 wine with a hint of oak, accompanied our meal.)

For my main course, I decided against pasta (even the special pappardelle with arugula and prosciutto) and took the seafood route. I agonized over the tempting offerings: mixed seafood grill, sauteed grouper, grilled shrimp, whole roasted yellowtail, and two swordfish dishes. The prices on the aforementioned are six to nine dollars higher than the pasta dishes or the grilled spring chicken, but I was anxious to try fresh seafood grilled over the same fire that had produced the delightful bruschetta.

The sauce on my swordfish, which the waiter had described as containing green olives and wine, was not actually made of green olives but of salty, black, Greek olives, as well as tomatoes, zucchini, and garlic. The sauce was tasty, potent and thick - even a barracuda would seem tame in comparison - but I was grateful that the waiter had the presence to serve it on the side because it overwhelmed even the enormous swordfish steak. I soon discovered that the fish tasted superb in its plain grilled state, having picked up an intriguing smoky flavor from the wood fire, and I enjoyed it unembellished, reserving the sauce as a side dish. For the record, the dish cost $22, a price that was never mentioned until we got the bill. There was a hint on the menu, though: Instead of a price, the other swordfish dish (with olive oil and lemon) was noted "p.a.," which I assume means please ask, which I suppose I should have done.

Desserts were tempting, if not particularly Italian, but we had no room for anything else. Raspberry sorbet, chocolate cake, creme brulee, ice cream, and fresh fruit were among the goodies.

Like its predecessor in the Park Central, Barocco Beach has great potential. The place is spacious; the chef is accomplished, if a little slow (we waited at least 30 minutes for our entrees); the prices will not frighten starving artists (or even others of somewhat limited means). With a little fine tuning in the kitchen and a brighter look, Barocco just might attract the SoBe counterparts of the Tribeca crowd. In the meantime, we ordinary folks can mangia in peace and quiet.

640 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach; 538-7700. Hours: Daily from 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., from noon to 4:30, and from 6:00 p.m. to midnight.


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