'Tis the Seasoning

'Tis the Seasoning
By Jen Karetnick

While waiting for our table, my guests and I glanced around at the racks of wine, the gleaming deli cases displaying imported meats and cheeses, the shelves of pastries scenting the market portion of Perricone's Marketplace & Cafe. "This place looks just like Stephan's," Martin, one of my friends, remarked, referring to the gourmet Italian market and 22-seat cafe on South Beach.

"Oh, it's the same owner -- Steven Perricone," our host said as he led us to a table. "Enjoy your meal."

"Not bloody likely," Martin muttered. He looked at me accusingly. "You've brought us to a front. Aren't these the people that got caught running drugs and dodging taxes?"

It's times like these that my dubious reputation as a font of local restaurant lore actually comes in handy, and I was able to correct him. Martin was thinking of the Key Biscayne restaurant Stefano's, whose owner Stefano Brandino (who also owned Sunday's on the Beach of Key Biscayne and Salty's in Haulover, among other establishments) had his eateries seized by the U.S. Marshals Service a few years ago. But he wasn't running drugs; he pleaded guilty last fall to tax fraud and admitted that he'd known when he agreed to sell his restaurants that the buyers wanted them for money-laundering purposes.

Still, my friend wasn't completely off the map in pairing Perricone with Brandino. Brandino sued Perricone for naming his South Beach market Stefano's; after more than a year of legal wrangling, Perricone gave in and renamed his shop. And the two have something else in common: Both have aspired to build restaurant empires.

Perricone opened Manhattan Cafe, a 40-seat lunchery that caters to the downtown business crowd, in 1994. After selling Stephan's the following year, he debuted Giovanna Cafe, a slightly larger downtown lunch establishment. And then last October came his biggest venture yet, Perricone's, a 100-seat cafe on SE Tenth Street that offers three gratifyingly inexpensive meals a day, plus an attached marketplace that provides take-out fare, wine, desserts, and noshes, as well as a catering service.

The tables at Perricone's are split between indoors and outdoors, but unless you prefer air-conditioning to the real thing, it doesn't really matter where you sit -- the interior of the restaurant, with its slatted chairs, flowered tablecloths, and beams of wood has an outdoorsy feel to it, as if you're dining on the deck of the ship. The small menu is supplemented by two or three daily pasta specials and an equal number of entree specials. We tried the soup of the day, a briny bowl of stracciatella (the kitchen had run out of our first choice, minestrone). A chicken broth was dense with spinach and beaten egg -- not at all like the swirling egg-drop soup our waiter described, but a grainier, countrified version, bits of rich egg clinging to the clustered greens like snow to eyelashes. The soup's only real flaw was the bouillonlike stock, far too concentrated and salty for the ingredients whose flavors it masked.

We stuck with the printed list for the rest of our appetizers, enjoying a cold antipasto platter comprising three slices each of lean prosciutto, slightly fattier cappicola (another type of ham), and garlicky hard salami, all of good quality. Two balls of fresh white cheese, deemed mozzarella by our waiter but tasting more like provolone, were surrounded by pitted kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, and sliced fresh tomatoes. This was a hearty appetizer, graced by the complimentary fresh bread and garlic-infused olive oil served at the start of the meal.

A plate of mussels, while not as generous, was equally cold. Six small mollusks afloat in a pesto and white wine sauce were aromatic and herb-flecked, and their springy texture spoke of good seafood cookery. A lighter hand with the salt in the kitchen and a quicker hand with the dish to the table would have helped immensely.

A combination plate of fried calamari and zucchini was a disappointment in terms of the vegetable, hardly any of which was sprinkled amid the squid. The majority of the dish consisted of clusters of squid legs, which kicked up from the plate like mutant Rockettes. I happen to like this part of the squid, especially when they're tender and encased in a grease-free batter as these were, but most customers prefer the soft fleshy rings of body meat. Worst of all, this dish was also cold, a situation that a bowl of marinara sauce, spicy but lukewarm, could do little to ameliorate.

Matters improved with the main courses, though the salt problem persisted. An entree of veal saltimbocca ("jump in the mouth") almost seemed as if it were named after the dish's dominant ingredient. The tender scallops of veal, smothered in a Marsala-color sauce, proved after a few bites to be too dehydrating to eat. Notes of sage and white wine were lost, and prosciutto cotto, the boiled ham that traditionally dresses the veal cutlets before they are browned, was entirely absent. (Of course, had the prosciutto been present, the dish's sodium content probably would have knocked off a hypertensive diner faster than a surfeit of pork rinds.)

By the time an overly seasoned seared swordfish steak arrived, we'd begun to feel like participants in an osmosis experiment. This time the brackishness marred a chunky sauce of deliciously soft, buttery leeks and chopped tomatoes, redolent with rosemary. On the plus side, the big, juicy steak was fresh and perfectly cooked; the roasted skin-on white potatoes, swirl of pureed yams, and florets of broccoli that rounded out both entrees also helped to compensate for all the brine.

Five pasta choices are offered: meat or vegetable lasagna, homemade gnocchi, linguine with shrimp and asparagus, and orechiette with broccoli and prosciutto. We tested the kitchen's adaptability by ordering off the menu and off the specials list -- one of my guests wanted a simple olive oil-garlic dressing on spaghetti. Spaghetti proved unavailable, but chef Massimo Balacchi, who, as a six-month resident of America, literally just "got off the boat," graciously complied, with whole wheat linguine. (Adam Steinman, late of the country clubs at Fisher and Williams islands, takes charge of the day shift.) The result was the best dish of the evening, an al dente nest of perfectly prepared noodles, the nutty flavor of which was enhanced by evenly browned garlic. We found less success with a second pasta dish, a special. Tricolor tortellini filled with cheese were bland, while the cream sauce in which they rested was, alas, far too salty.

Roaming the market for wine and sweets to go with our meal was more than worthwhile. Perricone's stocks more than 75 wines, and if you want to imbibe one of them with your meal there's only a modest (four bucks) corkage fee imposed atop the retail price. Italian beers are also available. We found plenty of sweets this way as well and wound up purchasing a slice of crumbly ricotta cheesecake flecked with fudgy shavings at the counter. Pieces of dessert "sushi," pistachios surrounded by coconut and rolled in chocolate leaf, were indeed similar to the Almond Joy the counterperson jokingly called them. But though Perricone insists that his pastry chef Sandra makes all the desserts here, a commercial-tasting slice of chocolate-ribboned crumb cake came out of a wrapper, and the counterperson told us it was brought down from New York. (I've sampled this identical crumb cake at Stephan's.)

Despite the fact of a dinner-hour exodus, downtown -- the Brickell environs in particular -- is ripe for culinary commerce. And it will be getting some more: Capital Grille, an upscale steak-house chain from the northeast, is due to open any day now, and the City of Miami finally settled on a tenant for the long-vacant Firehouse Four. Perricone's got in just ahead of the rush. Leach some of that oceanic salt from the sauces and this reasonably priced marketplace and cafe will be well worth cruising.

Perricone's Marketplace & Cafe
15 SE 10th St; 374-9693. Open Monday -- Saturday from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. (Friday and Saturday until 11:00), and Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

Fried calamari and zucchini
Veal saltimbocca
Rosemary-seared swordfish

Published:01/16/1997 Last week's "Cafe" column incorrectly stated that Capital Grille, at 444 Brickell Ave., was not yet open. In fact the restaurant has been open for a month. New Times regrets the error.Info:Published:


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