In a city filled with Italian restaurants, distinguishing yourself from your competition is a tough task. After all, every Italian worth his tomatoes can make a decent gravy out of them. And every Italian's mama has her own family recipes to pass down, whether her offspring be future restaurateurs or just plain good cooks.
We may not have as many trattorias and caffes as, say, New York, where New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl has had the dubious honor of downing chocolate pasta. But Miami's still a busy burg dominated by numerous elegant eateries in Coral Gables, the reasonably priced handmade pasta places in downtown and the mid-Beach areas, and a horde of not-too-terrible, not-too-expensive noodle nooks on South Beach. And let's not forget about the strip-mall chains and family-style factories that serve formulaic but edible eats to the married mobs-with-children.
Still, you can differentiate yourself simply by occupying an unexpected spot. The eight-month-old Italian restaurant da Ermanno, for instance, caught my eye the first time I drove past its scripted awning on Biscayne Boulevard just north of NE 69th Street. Owner Ermanno Perotti, who lives in nearby Belle Meade, departed from the norm right away by opening his 50-seat refuge on an unsavory stretch, in a culinary no man's land. Outside, strip joints and $25-a-tryst motels. Inside, furniture covered in crushed velvet, and deliberately broken columns. Outside, crack kids and hookers. Inside, gilded mirrors and gleaming chandeliers, reflecting the polished service. Outside, a feel of desolate poverty. Inside, a comforting faux elegance, like a well-designed living room done on a budget. "A place where people come to relax," the 59-year-old Perotti told me over the phone, "not just to eat. A fun place to be."
It's impossible not to like the looks of da Ermanno, not to mention the man himself. A career patternmaker and production engineer in the garment trade, Perotti only recently got out of that business, which he'd been introduced to at age eight in his family's sewing machine factory. At twelve years of age, he was so eager to escape from button-making and seam-sewing he volunteered to help his mother in the kitchen. Thus a cook was born, and at da Ermanno, first-time restaurateur Perotti honors his mama by making her recipes. Unfortunately, he has separated the meat from the ball just a bit, with uneven cuisine.
The menu is Neapolitan Italian, and it is limited, especially in the appetizer department. On my two visits I tried them all and came away with two winners out of four. Pasta fagioli was a real treat, rich white bean soup spiked with garlic; the addition of plenty of celery and broken-up fettuccine thickened the savory broth nicely. A bowl of homemade chicken soup rich with shredded chicken and al dente spaghetti -- Italian chicken noodle soup -- didn't fare as well: Not even the sweetness of chopped carrots, onions, and celery could compensate for a massive overdose of salt.
An antipasto, the only cold starter available, proved to be a pretty assortment of meats, cheese, and briny kalamata olives. Prosciutto was soft and delicate, hard salami was spicy and appropriately oily, and wedges of Parmesan were a mellow foil for both. "Ermanno's appetizer" was another simple presentation, but this one wasn't nearly as inspiring. A plate of sauteed vegetables (principally broccoli and cauliflower) was flavored with garlic. We'd been intrigued when the waitress said it was accented by "two grapes"; we figured two kinds of grapes would be mixed throughout. Not so. A lonely pair of green grapes served as the literal garnish.
All main courses are fronted by the house salad, and, like the entrees themselves, the preparation is filled with good intentions. Large bowls of greens and tomatoes sit on a table near the back of the dining room, along with pepper mills, cruets of olive oil, and grated Parmesan. Almost immediately after you place your order, a server makes you a salad, brings it to your table, and cracks fresh black pepper over it. (He has already gone through a similar process after you first sat down, pouring a plate of olive oil and doctoring it with pepper and cheese so you can dip your bread.) I admire the concerted effort. But I couldn't help thinking that it was wasted energy: The romaine and spinach were bland, in need of a dose of something sharp and acidic -- a drop or two of vinegar or lemon juice would help immensely -- and the bread on both my visits was lamentably stale.
I'm always happy to see lasagna on a menu, as I'm of the opinion that this layered pasta dish can never be bad. It's the best entree you can order here, though the noodles on top of the casserole were overcooked and chewy, the sliced meatballs on the bottom soggy. Smooth ricotta and tangy marinara made up for much.
The meatballs were better whole; served with spaghetti or baked ziti, they were firm, dense, and tasty. The baked ziti was a letdown, lacking the requisite ricotta -- this was merely ziti pasta covered with a marinara sauce and a thin layer of mozzarella. And in my book, a minute or two in the oven to melt the cheese does not constitute baked ziti.
Linguine with white clam sauce pointed out a potential problem. The eight clams-in-the-shell did not taste at all fresh. And these were the only clams in the dish; the sauce was actually a pile of chopped garlic softened by white wine, with barely a hint of clam flavor.
In fact, I'd avoid the seafood in general. Calamari fra diavolo was inedible, rubber bands of squid so tough that I could have used them on the braces I wore when I was twelve. Nor was the sauce spicy, as it should have been; rather, it was a clone of the red sauce that dressed the lasagna, ziti, and spaghetti. That same marinara accented a plate of shrimp napoletano, which amounted to medium-size shrimp in marinara sauce over spaghetti. This dish might have been fine if the shrimp hadn't given off an aroma of iodine, a sign they'd been hanging around awhile.
The surest path to follow at da Ermanno is that of a carnivore's. Veal piccata (listed on the menu as "veal piccante") was traditionally Italian, five pounded scallops unsullied by flour or breadcrumbs, supple in their lemon bath. A fillip of roasted peppers added a drop of color, as did slices of lemon, though the veal could have done without the latter -- the sauce was already tart enough to irritate an ulcer. Additionally, the absence of any absorbing starches or vegetable side dishes made the plate seem skimpy.
Though not listed on the menu, our server told us that chicken can be substituted for all veal recipes. We took advantage, and ordered a satisfying chicken parmigiana. The two pounded, breaded breast halves were greaseless and juicy, absorbing the marinara sauce and melding with the melted mozzarella. A side serving of spaghetti with tomato sauce completed this dish's epic proportions.
Perhaps the tastiest menu item was the least overtly Italian, and a special during one of my visits. Lamb stew, which is actually quite common in Italy, was a delicious ragout of boneless, musky lamb and hunks of potatoes, carrots, and onions. Serving the fall-apart-tender lamb over spaghetti was a trifle strange -- egg fettuccine might have better absorbed the light, pleasant sauce -- but overall this dish was admirable.
Dessert choices were limited to ice cream and chocolate cake. Had I been at a birthday party, this might have been fine. We settled for the cake, which the server affirmed was baked on the premises, and were appalled by its boxed-mix flavor and seeming staleness. Had we liked it, we might have also complained about its eensy size.
Gazing at the charming surroundings, I couldn't help but think the potential is here. Rather than concentrate on the one venture, though, Perotti seems determined to stretch. He intends to expand next door by the first of the year, into a storefront deli and New York-style pizzeria that will also deliver pastas from da Ermanno. Just as it could use an upscale Italian restaurant with downhome food and prices to match, this area could certainly use a pizza parlor. But Perotti should beware. As he says of the lifelong dream he opened on Valentine's Day: "My heart is in this." I just worry about his head, and how he might be getting in over it.
6927 Biscayne Blvd, Miami; 759-2001. Open nightly from 5:30 to 11:00 p.m.; closed Tuesday.
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Calamari fra diavolo