The secret to success in the Italian-restaurant business here has little to do with designer food. Forget miniravioli stuffed with shitake mushrooms, radicchio pesto, or other exotica. Restaurants that seem to consistently draw the biggest crowds offer hefty portions of perfectly cooked pasta and simple sauces at inexpensive prices.
This fact hit my eye like a big pizza pie during a recent visit to The Big Cheese, a thriving South Miami eatery where the marinara flows mightily over tall mountains of pasta. Until three months ago, when the seven-year-old spot moved across the street, the Cheese wasn't quite so big, seating only 30 gluttons. Now 100 diners can do their carbo loading here - and do so for little more than they might have paid years ago at the tiny place. There were more than the seatable number, though, the night I went with four friends (one of whom was a young boy); and rather than wait the "estimated" twenty-minute minimum for a table inside, we decided to sit on the small patio in front of the restaurant. Alfresco dining in Miami in August seemed a fine alternative to spending a long wait with a bored, hungry, and Nintendo-less eight-year-old.
Indeed, even eating outdoors was good at the Big Cheese. Flanked by plants and small citrus trees, the porch had a bit of a woodsy feel, and diners were partially shielded from the view of Metrorail running alongside nearby U.S. 1. Music filled the air but no speakers were in evidence, only a huge boom box on the floor. In many ways it was like being at a large family reunion or picnic where the emphasis was on the food and frolicking, not the fancy ambiance. And thanks to Metrorail, those on the patio don't actually see, smell, or hear Dixie Highway. In fact the only sites visible after dark are the trains in the distance, the restaurant itself, and the Tom Thumb Food Shop across the street. A peek at the interior proved that we were not missing much by sitting outside. Except for a few beer signs, the restaurant is devoid of decoration, and as noisy as a school cafeteria. The throngs come for the chow.
No sooner were we ensconced in chairs than the swift-footed waiter delivered a basket of piping-hot garlic rolls, lightly doused with olive oil, neither heavy nor soggy, threaded with fresh garlic. We downed half of the dozen-plus rolls before our main dishes arrived, washing them down with a glass of vino. Choices on the very thoughtful wine list include a stout Villa Banfi Chianti Classico ($14.95 per bottle) and an $11 bottle of Valpolicella Classico Superiore (Sartori), along with house wines offered by the glass at reasonable prices.
Six specialty pizzas are available with most of the standard toppings to choose from, with one glaring exception: the Miami Slice, which features ham, ricotta, pineapple, and is sprinkled with cinnamon. Even the eight-year-old balked at that. But the restaurant does serve pizza by the slice, so he was able to have exactly what he wanted; and the slices arrived faster than the youngster could say "I'm bored."
Besides pizza (priced between $12 and $16, depending on the size and toppings), a dozen salads are available - the most expensive an antipasto that costs $4.95 (which includes a half-dozen garlic rolls). New England clam chowder ($1.75) and a soup of the day are offered, as well as fourteen specialty subs priced from $2.35 to $2.75 for half a sandwich, and $4.40 to $4.75 for a whole one. Fillings include ground chuck, sausage, meatballs, tuna, turkey, steak, roast beef, eggplant, seafood, ham, chicken salad, plus a vegetarian and an Italian combo. Two other Italian sandwich-type concoctions on the menu are stromboli and calzone. No pasta entree costs more than $9; most, such as baked ziti, stuffed shells, and lasagna, are priced at $7.50 or less.
One member of our group chose the caesar salad to start and was disappointed by the lack of anchovies. The hairy fish will be included in the antipasto "on request," but no such provision is made on the caesar, leaving it a shadow of its former hirsute self. Despite the dearth, the salad was tasty and huge - the bowl was the depth of a mixing bowl - and the dressing, thick with freshly grated Parmesan, tasted clearly homemade.
Another diner in our group tried baked eggplant Parmesan (one of two eggplant entrees available) and found it soft as a whisper and free of the common eggplant maladies - excess moisture and discoloration. The melanzane had soaked up the wonderful flavors of olive oil, mozzarella, and tomato sauce. A side of spaghetti was served with it and, like all the entree platters here, this one virtually overflowed with food.
Preparing for round two of his school reunions, my ever-faithful dining companion was delighted to find tortellini that weren't drowned in a sea of rich cream sauce. Most of the pasta entrees were baked with a meat-flavored tomato sauce, and these meat-stuffed tortellini were no exception.
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Unconcerned with reunions, I finally settled on spaghetti with clam sauce, and chose the "olive oil, fresh garlic and spices, and a creamy white sauce" over the red-sauce version. Everything about the entree lived up to its billing except the "creamy" part. The spaghetti had a light coating of a very sheer sauce; but what a sauce it was - absolutely loaded with tender, not-too-sandy clam morsels, and redolent with garlic. I ate as much as I could, gave everyone a taste, and still had a deep-dish pie pan full of leftovers to take home.
Between the before-dinner rolls and the massive plates of pasta, we had no room for either the dinner salad or dessert. We could only groan and say prossimo visita - next visit - when the waiter mentioned the non-Italian offerings of cheesecake and key lime pie.
There's more to the Big Cheese than meets the eye - even, I'm told, a secluded "Godfather Room" for private parties. But behind the restaurant's plain facade is a kitchen that does the Italian famiglia culinary experience in grand style. The Cheese stands alone as some of the best, cheapest Italian fare in town.
The Big Cheese
8080 SW 67th Ave; 662-6855. Hours: Monday - Thursday from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m; Friday from 11:00 a.m. to midnight; Saturday from noon to midnight; and Sunday from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.