Why Tiramesu Won't Go Away

New York Times staff writer Georgia Dullea is sick of South Beach, and she isn't alone. Her sardonic take on the hip and the hop of Miami's pet project, encapsulated in her March 21 article "Why Won't South Beach Go Away?" isn't the first critical Times article I've read. After a few years of bestowing unconditional adoration, favorable comparisons to New York's most interesting neighborhoods, and affectionate nicknames, it seems some reporters have ceased to be complimentary. Always searching for a new angle, they have jumped on a bandwagon heading back to the Northeast. Rather than repeatedly lauding the rise of South Beach as the most popular resort sands in the world, these writers want to be the first to predict its erosion.

The point, however, is not whether Dullea or other detractors believe that South Beach will be a decades-long success. In every likelihood, South Beach will go away -- someday. For now it's enough that the mere mention of the place, like a remark about Madonna, elicits response (the kind, many hope, that brings visitors with money). You can criticize it all you want. The only emotion South Beach need fear is boredom.

South Beach restaurateurs may tell you something similar. Restaurants and cafes in this area are often not intended as long-term investments. Atmosphere -- the evocation of a mood -- often comes more highly rated than cuisine, and business rarely endures beyond a year. Like a high-risk stock, immediate return is the goal of these restaurants.

An exception to this come-and-go rule is Tiramesu at the corner of Fifth and Ocean. This place for pasta joins veterans The Strand, News Cafe, and Mezzanotte as one of the pioneers on the South Beach voyage.

Due to its position at the end of restaurant row, Tiramesu has escaped much of the hype, and consequently has missed opportunities for business. Strollers frequently stop and turn around at Sixth, not intrigued by what appears to be empty outdoor cafes and little action on the next block. Competition is also keen. Carbohydrate-seekers on a pasta pilgrimage may dine at i Paparazzi, Mad Max, Barocco, or Caffe Milano, all Italian trattorias of sound reputation and attention-drawing crowds, before ever reaching Tiramesu.

Yet since its inception in August 1988, Tiramesu has maintained a steady business. Manager Graziano Spraggio attributes this moderate if not awe-inspiring success (though five years on Ocean Drive is an accomplishment in itself) to returning European business. Visitors, he believes, appreciate the authenticity of made-on-the-premises pastas and sauces, such as traditional lasagna, fettuccine alla bolognese, and linguine fra' diavola, jumbo shrimp in a spicy tomato sauce.

A recently revised menu features the best-selling pasta dishes culled from past menus. The only nonpasta plates are the salads, appetizers, and the carpaccios, one of beef and another of salmon. Similarly, the wine list has been revamped, and a full liquor license is due within the month. A full bar, added to the existing square footage, will be installed by summer.

The red-and-black minimalist decor isn't quite comfortable (the seats on the lawn-style chairs angle backward), but this isn't meant to be a homestyle place. Still, it has the odd comforting touch. Main dishes, with the exception of the gnocchi, are delivered to a nearby wait-station in casserole-style pots. The customer's plate is then served from these dishes. The advantage to this style of service is the opportunity to begin with a small serving and then follow with an encore presentation. A disadvantage is the necessity of waiting on the waiter, who may or may not be available when you want seconds. Another drawback is that the chafing dishes aren't kept warm, though the pasta, of course, would cool at least as rapidly at your place setting.

What really chafed was the service: Our particular waiter was rude and argumentative, and refused to ask on our behalf how a certain dish was prepared (he was convinced he was right, despite our doubts). But the open kitchen was an invitation for us to check directly with the chef, who cheerfully complied. Our waiter was indeed incorrect, and unapologetic.

He was equally stubborn about the two bottles of wine I ordered, a Bardolino and Ruffino's Orvieto Classico, both of them decent selections for the price. He insisted on showing the bottles to the men at the table despite my directive: "She who orders the wine, tastes the wine." After my husband repeated my request to try the wine, he grudgingly allowed me first taste of only one of the bottles. To be perverse, we demanded that the other woman in our party taste the second bottle. He then proceeded to fill everyone's glass but mine, and quit the table until our appetizers were served. For a restaurant that wants to emphasize good service, this was not an auspicious beginning.

The arrival of our salads, however, indicated that a more welcome tide was rising. The insalata tricolore, a generous, snappy mixture of arugola, radicchio, Belgian endive, and hearts of palm, was served with vinegar and olive oil on the side in glass cruets. We also enjoyed the mozzarella alla caprese, thick coins of cheese and beefy tomatoes sprinkled with basil.

Slightly on the flat side was the Caesar salad, a creamy version not enhanced by the stronger flavors of bacon and anchovy. And our final appetizer, the bruschetta -- toasted garlic bread topped with fresh tomato, garlic, basil, and oregano -- was a bit too pungent and overloaded, causing the bread to disintegrate.

But if a restaurant could be judged on its gnocchi alone, I would forgive anything and devote pages of prose to the most precious potato dumplings I've had in Miami. Served with your choice of tomato, tomato-cream (pink), or cream sauce, these were the work of experts who know that the less flour you use, the lighter the gnocchi. The fresh basil and tangy tomato base flattered the delectably misshapen fluff, obviously handmade due to the variations in size.

Other pasta dishes were equally as delicious. The spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, red pepper, and a touch of fresh tomatoes was a refreshing combination, not weighty, but certainly satisfying. The pipette alle melanzane, a toss of noodles shaped like bent rigatoni, eggplant cubes, mozzarella, fresh basil, and oregano, was sticky with the cheese and slippery with the tomato sauce, a wonderful impromptu casserole. Traditionally this is a peppery preparation, though this version seemed a little sweeter and tempered by the smooth mozzarella.

Dessert is the feature for which the restaurant is named. We ordered a tiramesu for the table, a lovely version of Venice's favorite after-dinner treat. Though the name means "pick me up," this portion of ladyfingers soaked in an espresso-and-liqueur mixture and layered with a sweet mascarpone cheese was too delicate for such maneuverings. We ate with forks. Our choice for coffee, we learned from our waiter, was espresso or cappuccino, which we declined. According to him, the restaurant does not serve American coffee. Naturally the Italian coffee is far preferable. But the price for a cappuccino as compared to a regular cup of coffee is a substantial increase. Diners should at least have the choice.

Poor service can often ruin a meal. Fortunately for Tiramesu the cuisine, so well prepared, overcame that aspect of potential disaster. And I'm inclined to believe that the rest of the staff is civil and helpful. Or the question residents would be asking is not "Why won't South Beach go away?" but "Why won't Tiramesu go away?"

Poor service can ruin a meal. Fortunately the cuisine overcame that aspect of potential disaster.

In fact, Tiramesu, owned by the Miami-based family company Treviso, claims the distinction of being one of the oldest restaurant on Ocean Drive that is still operated by the original investors.

I am sure there are some who would disagree with my philosophy regarding wine. Obviously my waiter, for one. But I believe whoever orders the wine says yea or nay, regardless of gender. A palate, after all, is not gender-specific, limited to the male species like color-blindness or pattern baldness.

Tiramesu has reasserted itself among the competition.
In truth, the waiters in general were a disadvantage. One server, on his way to another table, overheard a guest of mine deciding between two pastas. "Number 33 is awesome!" he yelled as he jostled his way through the floor. (Yes, the pastas are numbered: 20 through 38; appetizers are counted one through eleven; which leaves twelve through nineteen in the mystery zone. My suggestion is to play those numbers on the lottery.)

And washed it down with water and the rest of the wine -- for those of us who love food for its sake alone, this can be a problem. (The restaurant closest to Tiramesu has been through several unfortunate incarnations, the most recent being Sugar Reef, which my husband fondly referred to as "Sugar Grief.")

It's true, Dullea learned, South Beach inspires in its residents the elements of a grand passion -- lust, love, and irritation -- which may or may not prove temporary. Answers to her irascible query ranged from "blatant boosterism" to a sincere "the light, the air, the Latin culture." One interviewee wished it would go away. Dullea wasn't displeased with this last response.

And an eatery with staying power is a welcome rarity.


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