Chances are pretty good your grandmother isn't as talented a cook as you think. Sure, that lasagna or meatloaf is better than those you've tried elsewhere, and her other few specialties are perhaps equally impressive. But the key word here is few — meaning through years and years of making the same handful of dishes, she has refined them to near perfection. Now try asking the lasagna specialist to whip up coq au vin. Grandma will spew profanity you never thought she knew. Better leave the kitchen right away.
Restaurateur Tom Billante doesn't offer lasagna or meatloaf at his string of Italian eateries, but he developed a crowd-pleasing recipe early on and keeps re-creating it successfully in different settings — Carpaccio, Il Villagio, Luna Café, Ristorante Bellagio, Trattoria Rosalia, and Calamari, the last having opened on Main Highway in Coconut Grove just more than a year ago. His main ingredients remain the same: freshly cooked, inexpensive Italian food in a casual, attractive setting.
This latest venture differs slightly from the others in that it's part of a sprawling Billante triptych of food and drink venues. Next door is a wine shop/gourmet market, La Bottega Enoteca, and next door to that is the reborn bar Taurus. Calamari takes up quite a bit of space all by itself — some 260 seats, including those on a quaint outdoor terrace with a fountain, foliage, and flowers.
The dining room is a modern, streamlined uptick on the Italian-American neighborhood restaurants that Billy Joel used to sing about. Tables covered in red-and-white-checked tablecloths topped by white cloths are spaciously arranged in front of an open showcase kitchen with a fiery wood-burning oven. Brick walls and token bucolic accouterments (white fish nets draped from the ceiling, flour-dusted loaves of bread piled on the counter, hanging prosciutto) lend a vague rustic vibe; floor-to-ceiling windows and an adjacent, sleeker-looking dining space centered by a big, busy, square-shaped bar provide contemporary contrast.
Predinner bruschetta is a signature Billante touch: triangles of warm, thin focaccia-like bread topped with a sprightly toss of diced tomatoes, herbs, shallots, olive oil, and vinegar. The rendition when we visited was tasty as always, but the tomatoes weren't as ripe as usual. Fat, fresh slices of soft peasant bread followed, accompanied by hard butter with a refrigerator aroma. We didn't plan on eating much of it anyway, for our first starter was to be a margherita pizza.
The crust of that pie was crisp, a compromise between thin and fluffy. Cheese and a simple red sauce were aptly proportioned, but an overwhelming taste of garlic powder rendered the slices nearly inedible. This is why pizza parlors traditionally place shakers of garlic powder on a counter next to other optional add-ons such as red pepper flakes, oregano, and Parmesan cheese.
Besides a limited array of pizza variations, the seafood-slanted menu encompasses carpaccios, risottos, pastas, soups, salads, and a mélange of meat, chicken, and fish entrées. Appetizers consistently met or exceeded expectations: fried calamari rings were hot and crackly-crusted; delicate carpaccio slices of air-dried bresaola beef came drizzled with fruity olive oil and parmigiana shavings; peerless eggplant parmigiana comprised a multilevel pile of thin, tender slices in tomato sauce the color of a fire engine; and chilled romaine leaves of a caesar salad were bathed in a balanced dressing of lemon, cheese, and garlic notes stimulated by a salty rumor of anchovies. Not that everything was perfect: The croutons could have been fresher.
We enjoyed main courses too. Lobster ravioli, prepared on premises, is swollen with lumps of the crustacean in a decadently rich lobster-cream sauce. A mild tomato-based clam sauce clings to al dente strands of linguine, with a dozen sweet baby littlenecks camped on top. Three tender veal scaloppine are glazed with an aptly tart piccata pan sauce of white wine, lemon juice, and capers. Salmon, grouper, snapper, tilapia, and tuna are offered Italian-style, be it Livornese, piccata, or oreganata. Bright green broccoli spears, a baton of carrot, and a few softly roasted pieces of potato round out most of the plates. The only negative among the entrées: a dry, distasteful half-chicken roasted in the wood-burning hearth.
On one occasion, service started strong, but as more patrons wandered in, the staff's attention wandered out. Delays stretched longer with each succeeding course, and getting a waiter to bring the dessert tray seemingly required its own advance reservation. The desserts that finally arrived looked old and tired, even though there were still a few hours to go before closing. A square of flan, wedge of carrot cake, cylinder of flourless chocolate cake, cannoli, something with purplish berries on top — none looked especially appetizing. My guest inquired about a mango sorbet he had seen on another table, and the waiter admitted it was available. It proved intensely fruit-forward, which is all you really want from a fruit-based sorbet.
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On a subsequent dinner during a weekend, service was much worse. Our waiter had too many customers to cover effectively and so left us to the buspeople — who alone among the staff consistently performed their jobs faultlessly. But there's only so much they could do. Clueless managers passed our table regularly during times we were stranded, and never once looked our way. We knew we'd never get to see the desserts, or a dessert menu, so we just asked for an order of cannoli; the pair was fresh and decent enough.
Most appetizers range from $5 to $10, pastas $10 to $13, main courses $15 to $20, and desserts $6 to $8. While these prices represent a great deal, nightly specials can make your meal even more of a steal. Monday evenings, for instance, feature a one-and-a-quarter-pound Maine lobster atop spicy linguine for $19.95. Tuesday's patrons pay for pizzas according to the hour — from $5 at 5 p.m. to $9 at 9 p.m. Wine Wednesday cuts the price of all bottles in half. You might say this dash of exceptional value is the salt in Billante's recipe — the extra boost that makes everything go down a little better (even bland service).
Diners get up from the table at Carpaccio the way they might rise from a family dinner — no exclamations of wonder over foods not seen before, no guesswork as to point of origins, no speculation about whether the chef will ever get his or her own Food Network show. Guests exit instead with a happy, gratified feeling that, dagnabit, Grandma has done it again!