Where the Buffalo Roam
Sage on Fifth opened in South Beach at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Fifth Street in August 2004, two weeks before Hurricane Frances blustered across Florida. Although the restaurant withstood the winds and rain, it couldn't endure customer indifference and was soon boarded up for good. Fratelli La Bufala (FLB) made its debut in the same location October 20 three days before Wilma wowed us. With power restored just days after the hurricane hit, FLB found itself feeding large crowds of electric-less locals hungering for pizzas, pastas, salads, and water buffalo (bufala in Italian; bubalus bubalis to those who prefer Latin). Well, maybe most weren't craving buffalo meat per se, but the point is, as normalcy gradually returned to the neighborhood, people still continued to fill the place. This time around, it appears a winner has blown into town.
Right off the bat FLB's owners have shown themselves to be sager than Sage's with regard to ambiance. The space has been renovated in a resplendently lit, wide-open manner that makes it extremely inviting from the outside partly, perhaps, because every other restaurant on the block (four in total and China Grill across the street) is uniformly dim. Sitting at one of the numerous outdoor tables on a recent evening, I was amazed by the amount of passersby who would slow as they approached the restaurant, scan the premises white walls, bright modern art, raw wood accents, and an open kitchen fronted by a white-mosaic wood-burning oven and comment about how welcoming it looked. More pertinently, the restaurant gives South Beach diners something even more unique: an affordably priced menu of popular, freshly prepared, fun-to-share foods. On top of that, it covers a thus-far neglected niche in our dining scene: water buffalo cuisine.
Mozzarella di bufala is the most familiar buffalo product and is featured at FLB in a number of settings. The cheese's most prominent role is star of its own plate (for two), a one-pound globular ball of delicate, juicy mozzarellona sweeter than the fresh cow's milk version so moist that when it's sliced, milky beads of enzymes appear on the cut surface. A smaller ball of mozzarella takes a supporting turn in a platter of assorted bufala cheeses that also brings a sweet, soft, fresh ricotta; a naturally, subtly smoked mozzarella; and Caciotta, which is semifirm and similar to Provolone. Regrettably the cheeses were drizzled with balsamic vinegar they might consider serving the dairy unadorned and allow customers to decide whether to use the bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the table. One more gripe: None of the waiters could identify the cheeses. A manager eventually came over and described them for us, but though the servers are friendly, work hard, and exhibit the right attitude, they really do need more training.
The most impressive antipasto offering, La Bufalata, is an abundant array of cheeses, cured meats, olives, and assorted marinated vegetables that changes nightly (peppers, eggplant, et cetera). The plate is bountiful enough to feed a quartet and comprises the perfect fare to share over a bottle of wine which is exactly what many patrons were doing. The short wine list contains a few California selections but is otherwise Italian. Likewise, FLB draws much of its clientele from Italy, many of whom you might have seen dining across the street at Sport Café prior to its closing last year.
Approximately 75 percent of the thousand-plus Italian bufala farmers are located in Campania. That's pizza country, and mozzarella di bufala is naturally the melting cheese of choice as it is at FLB, where pies are made to order and delivered steaming-hot to the table. Crusts are thin, pliable, and slightly charred; the red sauce is basic; the bufala cheese, in this guise, pretty much indistinguishable from that of fresh cow's milk. Add a few basil leaves and you've got a margherita pie, or choose from sixteen other alluring garnishes.
The American Water Buffalo Association (AWBA), headquartered in Gainesville, Florida, cranks out a monthly bulletin chock-a-block with insightful information about water buffalo and its eminent edibility. The paper suggests bufala meat is darker in color, less fatty, lower in cholesterol, and more resistant to internal and external parasites than regular beef, and buffalo steaks rated higher than beef steaks in taste tests conducted in Malaysia and Trinidad. After sampling FLB's bufala hamburger, I'm certainly wary of eating in any Malaysian or Trinidadian steakhouse: It was one of the worst burgers I've ever had. I don't say this because it lacked the bun, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, or any other accompaniment that a reasonable person might expect from a hamburger listed as "L'American," but because it was a dreadfully dry, tough, graceless patty topped with a rubbery rug of semimelted smoked mozzarella. Managing to make it through only three or four bites, I considered writing to the AWBA after all, this burger could give water buffalo a bad name and cause considerable backlash to their cause.
An eight-ounce bufala tenderloin was better but was neither as tender nor juicy as its cow counterpart. Plus it was not what the menu promised, the steak arriving sappily seared instead of grilled, with an unannounced and unwelcome capping of smoked mozzarella and roasted potatoes. Another mixup occurred earlier in the meal when we were served an ice-cold rendition of "warm potato salad." While I'm at it, I'll also mention that the seventeen percent gratuity, which seems a bit much for a pizza joint, is absolutely too high for an automatically added tip on a pizza I picked up to-go. Granted, this place is new, but these sorts of mistakes should be ironed out quickly.
It might be wiser to sample your water buffalo meat within the context of pleasing pasta dishes, such as tagliatelle Bolognese with a hearty bufala ragout, or bufala sausage and petite broccoli florets in an appetizing tangle of firmly cooked De Cecco brand orechiette (open kitchens aid greatly in product identification).
Tiramisu; cannolini; a light, lemony cheesecake; and a delicious cherry-cheese tart derive a delicate distinctiveness from their base of bufala ricotta but stood out more for their exceptional freshness. A rich yet airy chocolate almond cake, a specialty of Capri, impressed without any cheese at all. A tasting platter tenders generous portions of four desserts for just $9.
There are kinks to be worked out, but the three brothers who own FLB (thus the name: Fratelli La Bufala) have the know-how to do so they already operate more than a dozen franchises, most of which are located in Italy. I have reservations concerning the bufala meat, but for cheese and wine, pizza and pasta, or pastries and espresso, FLB is A-Okay. And South Beach diners finally have a home where the buffalo roam and the skies are not cloudy all day.
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