Venice, Anyone?

The restaurants on Ocean Drive still have the capacity to surprise me. Just when I think I know what to expect -- mediocre fare, lousy service, wide-eyed tourists -- a place like Pane Caldo Ristorante Italiano comes along and quiets my instinctive distaste.

Or some of it, anyway. On the night we visited, service was astonishingly poor at this Venetian ristorante, a sister to the successful Chicago flagship of the same name. Short on staff, the South Beach version was chaotic, with one waiter working a busy dining room of 60 seats all by himself; we had to wait half an hour before he came to take our order. And plenty of out-of-towners were in evidence, armed with their weapon of choice, the flashbulb-popping Instamatic. Then again a fair share of locals had turned up for dinner, too, as had some members of the band Gipsy Kings, whose members launched into an impromptu performance between courses. This isn't to say that one should expect a concert with every meal at Pane Caldo. But on their own, the creatively prepared dishes can be show enough.

A basket of homemade bread contained poppy-seed breadsticks, along with pieces of an herb focaccia and a crusty Italian loaf, proof that the restaurant's name, which translates as "warm bread," was no misnomer. Ramekins of a bruschettalike topping (chopped tomatoes, basil, garlic, and olive oil) and a robust black olive tapenade replaced the typical butter or olive oil as spreads.

A large yellow onion was a container for an appetizer of roasted chicken and sausage. Halved and scooped out, the onion was first grilled, then filled with smoky hunks of the meat, which were tasty if a trifle tough. Studded with chopped onions and braised Napa cabbage, the mixture was filling and rich, far better than a second starter of duck and chicken dumplings. Two flat ovals of minced poultry were more like meat patties than dumplings, dry and pasty despite the fact that they glistened with a sheen of oil. An over-vinegared centerpiece of onion comfit marmalade countered the blandness too sharply and provided little added moisture.

A decorative carpaccio rekindled our interest in the appetizers. Overlapping slices of raw beef enclosed an "eye" of subtle prune, the fruit adding just a hint of sweetness. In the center of the plate, tiny diced vegetables and a few romaine leaves were coated with a caesarlike dressing and a dusting of Parmesan cheese.

Pastas are billed on the menu as the primi course, but plates are big enough to share as a first course or to order as an entree. We chose the latter, ordering homemade fettuccine with onion and spinach in a light tomato sauce. "Light" turned out to be misleading, given the thick stickiness of the sauce, but the tomato-onion flavor was intense, shreds of fresh spinach adding color if not flavor. The freshly made pasta was superb, perfectly cooked and with just the right amount of resistance.

The same held true for a delicious, fragrant dish of bigoletti, homemade spaghetti served with a dry sauce of assorted seafood, whole chickpeas, small white Roman beans, and diced plum tomatoes. The variety of toppings -- succulent, butterflied jumbo shrimp and gigantic blue mussels, as well as seared bay scallops and tender calamari rings A was impressive, especially given the plate's modest price tag ($14.50).

Saltwater pleasures continued with a risotto agli asparagi con aragosta, one of the three risottos offered nightly. A steaming plate of arborio rice, perfectly creamy from the constant stirring a good risotto requires, boasted a curled half-tail of Maine lobster, with more chunks of the sweet meat scattered throughout. Chopped asparagus contributed texture and clean flavor.

Having stuffed ourselves with pasta and rice, we limited ourselves to one of the six meat entrees offered on the menu, a fantastic portion of grilled double lamb chops. Precisely medium rare, the lamb was coated with a garlic, rosemary, and mustard sauce, and served with a handful of sugar-snap peas.

Though the restaurant's pride in its baked-on-the-premises bread is more than justifiable, desserts aren't deserving of such self-congratulation. A chocolate mousse cake was hardly what we expected, and so elaborate as to be ridiculous. Encased in dark chocolate leaves, a round, individual-size portion featured meringuelike layers spread with a milky chocolate mousse. In the center, the only burst of actual cake was drowned in a liqueur so strong it tasted less like chocolate than like grappa, a substance I'd rather use to fuel my car than my body; on top, a thick layer of cocoa powder puffed into the air like pepper every time we tried to penetrate it. Two Kool-Aid-hued sauces, one aqua, the other tutti-frutti red, were the backdrop; a spun sugar butterfly, perched atop a strawberry that had been coated with the same mixture, served as garnish. Powerfully bad, but at least it failed with conviction.

Similarly, restaurateur Antoine Cedicci doesn't seem to be going about any of this business halfheartedly, regardless of the risk. He opened up right next to a Mano in the Betsy Ross Hotel, in a space that has seen the failure of two establishments, the Stars & Stripes Cafe and its successor, Mediterraneo. Cedicci gambled even more by removing the horseshoe bar that had dominated the center of the dining room and increasing the number of seats so that patrons could be packed together like anchovies in oil. And unfortunately, customers whose tables aren't ready have nowhere to wait but on the pavement (this discomfort could be remedied by eliminating a few of the 80 outdoor seats and building a bar area on the porch).

Such quibbles -- and the question of service -- aside, it's no surprise Cedicci is booking all those tables. Obviously the addition of one good restaurant isn't enough to restore my faith in the Ocean Drive dining experience, but Pane Caldo keeps me from becoming completely Beach bummed.

Side Dish
A press release I received recently posed this question: "When was the last time you ate chocolates by candlelight or took your lover for a walk under the moon?" Well, thanks for asking. But it really hasn't been that long, ever since Belgian chocolatier Leonidas opened at 1231 Washington Ave., on South Beach. And while I'm more inclined to take a dog for a walk than my husband, no matter who I choose to accompany me, I can now fuel my moonlight peregrinations with any of the 60 varieties of chocolates offered at the shop, which stays open till midnight on weekends.

Of course if you regard your furry companions with the same warmth I do, you might want to treat them to a Valentine's Day gift. Located in that monolith we call CocoWalk, the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory sells candy-coated dog biscuits in both regular and large sizes. Kind of like condoms.

Traditionalists might prefer the Godiva store in Aventura Mall, or Kr”n Chocolatier in Bal Harbour Shops. And for those of us who revel in the hopelessly romantic cliche of the heart-shaped box, Poppin Cottage Candies of Miami Beach, at 7449 Collins Ave., offers upward of twenty sizes and varieties of lacy, beribboned specimens, all waiting to be filled with the shop's made-on-the-premises chocolates. There's even a "tuxedo heart" for that manly man in your life.

But back on the Beach is where the more "alternative" options weigh in. I never would have come up with the idea of selling hand-dipped chocolates in an antique emporium, but that's exactly what Artefacts is doing at 609 Lincoln Rd. In fact, according to owner Howard Talesnick, the sweets are the best-selling merchandise in the place.

If you're looking for something more to the point for Valentine's Day, gawk at the explicit Kama Sutra chocolates at Stephan's Gourmet Market & Cafe, at 1430 Washington Ave. They even deliver.


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