Taverna Pizzeria and Risotteria: conceptually genius or excessively ambitious?
Although pizza and risotto are two pillars of Italian cuisine, they don't have a whole lot in common. Pizza is essentially street food, a quick and inexpensive meal consumed by the slice at modest sidewalk cafés. Risotto is far more elegant, often tricked out with pricey cheeses, truffles, seafood, and fungi, and lovingly presented in upscale trattorie and ristoranti.
But the differences don't stop there.
Taverna Pizzeria and Risotteria
3145 Commodore Plaza, Coconut Grove
305-441-9334. Open daily 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
It might be true that great pizza is a culinary work of art, but given a hot oven, freshly made dough, and quality ingredients, even a trained monkey could turn out a pretty decent pie. (Perhaps that's why there's so little great pizza in South Florida a shortage of trained monkeys.)
Risotto, on the other hand, is a work of culinary alchemy. The combination of starch-laden short-grain rice (arborio, carnaroli, or vialone) and homemade stock added ladle by ladle, stirred and allowed to rest, stirred and allowed to rest, then finished with cheese, butter, and whatever other goodies you want to throw in produces a creamy, dreamy haute porridge that's just this side of magical.
Pizza is perfect restaurant food. It takes one minute to stretch the dough, another to slap on the ingredients, ten in the oven, and it's en route to your table.
Risotto, in a restaurant context, is a bitch. Each order demands one cook's undivided attention. Sauté the rice, add stock, stir the rice, add stock, stir the rice, and repeat for half an hour while every other kitchen worker is juggling multiple tasks in a desperate attempt to feed the hungry hordes.
So most restaurants cheat a little, typically half-cooking the rice, then spreading it onto cookie sheets, and popping it in the refrigerator. As and when it's ordered, it's finished on the stove with a bit of cream stirred in to mimic the opulent texture that otherwise comes from the rice's own slowly released starch.
That brings us back to Taverna Pizzeria and Risotteria.
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The pizzas are very good and very Italian, meaning thin crusts a little soggy in the middle but crisp and nicely blistered around the edges and they're not offered with too many overly wacky garnishes. The fanciest one is topped with mozzarella di bufala, mushrooms, truffled cream, and speck (smoked prosciutto), but the pungent rusticity of that cracker-thin crust dabbed with tomato sauce, mozzarella, anchovies, black olives, and capers seems more in keeping with a dish invented in the gritty blue-collar town of Naples.
The risotto is even better. True, it doesn't have the gloriously creamy, unctuous texture of the best homemade articles, but it beats the porcinis off most other restaurants' versions. Ours was a verdant green from garlicky pesto and studded with small, sweet-tasting shrimp; each grain of rice was tender yet firm to the tooth, no small feat given the realities of a restaurant kitchen.
Pasta is the third pillar of Italian cuisine, and let's hope the rest are better than fiocchi al gorgonzola; the tortellonilike packets of blue-veined cheese and pear were as tough and tasteless as the assembly line stuff sold at supermarkets. It was a tribute to the impossibly rich gorgonzola dolce latte sauce, flecked with walnuts and arugula, that I ended up eating most of them.
Starters are minimal and unsurprising antipasto of cured meats, caprese salad, and bresaola (cured beef) in place of carpaccio. Do try the fritto misto; the accompanying shrimp and baby artichokes are tender and tasty, and the frying is first-rate though the tiny rings and tentacles of squid were slightly overcooked. Also try the stellar panna cotta, today's tiramisu, the silken cooked vanilla cream presented in a pool of tangy red wine jus with a handful of fresh berries. A fine way to toast Taverna's successful realization of its ambitious concept.