Ristorante Fratelli Milano's umbrella-shaded tables are tightly clustered together on pinched, pedestrian-clogged SE First Street. Two dozen indoor seats are just as closely cramped in the windowless aisle of a room, where harried waiters squeeze through impossible spaces with oversize white bowls of pasta in their hands. This ain't exactly the Piazza del Duomo.
The staff speaks Spanish and English — not Italian — and, though eminently friendly, does not possess those subtle service skills espied in small European eateries. The wine list isn't as sophisticated as might be found abroad either. It reads, "Bottle wine red/white ... $20." And Milano's menu doesn't mine much Milanese gastronomy, playing it safe instead with a short list of predictable pizzas, pastas, panini, and main courses mostly composed of simply grilled items. I just have to come to grips with the grim reality: It is summer and I am not meandering through Milan on a whirlwind vacation but eating lunch in downtown Miami. In this context, Fratelli joins Soya y Pomodoro as a real find for affordable Italian.
Fratelli's cuisine does mimic the Old World in that it is fresh and cooked fresh-to-order. I know the latter is true because reheating food couldn't possibly take this long. On one visit, we waited about 20 minutes for an order of fried calamari. The crisply battered squid rings ultimately arrived cleanly fried, if a bit rubbery. A few logs of fried zucchini get tossed in too, all accompanied by a smooth, slightly spicy tomato sauce.
There aren't a whole lot of starter choices, the others being an antipasti misto of prosciutto, coppa, salami, Parmigiano-Reggiano, mozzarella fior di latte, olives, and roasted peppers; bruschetta atop toasted ciabatta bread; soup of the day; and a quintet of paper-thin pizzas. We selected a Margherita pie, blackened along the rim and boasting a slim topping of tomato sauce, mozzarella, fresh basil, and dried oregano.
A half-dozen salads encompass the usual suspects — Caprese, caesar, chef — along with pasta, spinach, and arugula assemblages garishly garnished with too many ingredients to list. The only one we tried was the caesar, which should be buried, not praised. Ribbons of romaine came tightly packed into a small bowl, with generic croutons sprinkled on top and anchovy-anchored dressing in a small plastic container on the side. Because of the confining presentation, the dressing couldn't be tossed with the leaves, but had to be drizzled on top; not the same. Plus the salad was as untimely as it was unwieldy: We requested it be brought after the main courses, but instead it was placed on the kitchen pick-up counter for the lengthy duration of the calamari cooking — and then was served with the entrées. It might also be noted that tomatoes fanned upon a neighboring table's Caprese salad looked unfetchingly pale.
A dry, charmless eggplant parmigiana panini on toasted ciabatta bread was yet another underperformer (costarring insipid potato sticks), but almost everything else warranted praise. Especially pastas. A thick, wide square of lasagna came piled with four layers of noodle interspersed with sausage-laden meat sauce, béchamel, mozzarella fior di latte, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The same sweet Italian sausage played a more prominent role when tossed with broccoli, garlic, and chewy tubes of bucatini pasta. Firm, bright yellow rings of cheese tortellini mingled with peas and regular old American ham in a mildly sweet sauce of reduced cream and Parmesan, and a daily special of linguine with clams came chock-a-block with tender littlenecks in their shells.
Fratelli Milano's apt signature dish, veal alla Milanesa, brought a huge, meaty, heartily breaded cutlet marred only by an overly greasy crust. Lemony arugula leaves beneath the veal helped cut the oil but were too heavily salted; a sprightly toss of diced mozzarella cheese, tomato, and basil piled on top helped cut the salt. Grilled skirt steak, mahi-mahi, and chicken breast represent a lighter cooking approach that is perhaps more suitable for the torpor of Miami summer. The last — a succulent, assertively char-grilled slab of white meat with lime aioli lined across the top — impressed most. All entrées except the veal come accompanied by vegetable du jour (often broccoli) and moistly roasted, savorily seasoned potatoes.
Diners can size up their potential desserts through a glass display case that forms part of the front counter. Lemon tart lured me with its pale golden custard capped with wispy slices of citrus leaning upon a puff of freshly whipped cream. A buttery crust contributed to it tasting as good as it looked. The tiramisu appeared tired under the lights, so we nabbed a napoleon — a simple sandwich of puff pastry and vanilla cream that proved neither the Waterloo nor watershed of the meal. Like all of Fratelli's offerings, however, it was freshly made and popularly priced ($2.75; entrées under $15; pastas less than $10). Such attributes are considerable consolation for downtown Miami workers who won't be stretching their legs over the cobblestones of the Piazza del Duomo anytime soon.
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