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A Few Sandwiches Shy of a Picnic

In Miami, where eating and drinking seem to be the basis of all social contact, dining out has its advantages. Other than choosing the restaurant, making a reservation, and ordering, there's little stress involved. No chopping and dicing and nicking of fingers. No burnt disasters in the oven, no miasmas from the grill. No washing up.

Eating out has its cost, however, and I don't mean strictly the monetary one. We rightfully expect restaurants to provide consistent, delicious fare. So when an eatery -- particularly one that has been recommended, or visited and enjoyed previously -- proves uneven, we're more than disappointed. We're disillusioned. If the meal is pricey, we might also be angry. And if we intend, as I did on a recent Saturday evening at Escopazzo on Washington Avenue, to impress clients or relatives with a taste of the best South Beach has to offer, we might even be embarrassed.

Although it joins a double-handful of Italian restaurants located within walking distance of each other, Escopazzo still looks like a good idea. Unlike its stark forerunners, this cafe is beautifully elaborate, with handpainted murals depicting scenes from various regions of the old country. On a slow night (there aren't many), you may find owner Pino Bodoni tasting wine at the attractive service bar in the corner. Greenery and dark woods and columns that evoke Rome complete the 40-seat space, a room so intimate that even half-full, it appears as though a party is on the brink of spilling out onto the sidewalk. The name itself, Escopazzo (meaning "going crazy"), sounds as if you should say it while laughing. And the menu, which draws on classic southern and northern Italian influences, is at the same time inventive.

Escopazzo is not the place I would have expected a guest of mine to gag on his sea-scallop appetizer, which he did, owing to its overwhelming salt content. The presentation of the starter was innovative A two large Atlantic scallops baked in a latticed nest of potato sheets, looking more than anything like a pair of eggs over easy, served not on toast but on a bed of fresh green arugula. Imagination couldn't compensate for supersaturation, however. Were they cultured in a science lab, these scallops would have grown crystals.

After some prodding on our part, the staff replaced the inedible appetizer with a more palatable selection, the calamari con patate saltate, which combined squid with potato. In contrast to the scallops, the portion of sauteed, sliced squid and white potato chunks was generous and tasty, accented by basil. The gracious Bodoni delivered this himself with apologies. It's too bad he didn't attend to the check as well. We were charged for the squid, at a higher price than the scallops. Though the difference was negligible, the principle should be inviolate. If a customer must send back a dish, the kitchen should replace it with something else, free of extra charge.

A third starter, the aptly named piccola parmigiana, (piccola meaning "small" in Italian) was practically devoid of food. A minimalist's joy, this savory stack of baby eggplant, mozzarella cheese, and tomato sauce was tender but tiny, prompting my companion to mutter something uncomplimentary about nouvelle cuisine going Italian. She was right. For the most part, antipasti at Escopazzo were on the scant side.

Pastas -- an interesting selection -- were another matter. A single order of gnocchi con granchio e rugola served four adequately as an appetizer. Shredded stone crab and chopped sauteed arugula topped bite-size, hand-rolled dumplings, which were unquestionably excellent. Diners should beware of two sharp notes regarding this dish: occasional shards of shell, unavoidable in a recipe that calls for fresh crab; and an overpowering dusting of ground pepper.

Indeed, this kitchen overdoes the seasoning. An entree of red snapper baked in a bread shell, a unique, pretty plate, was aromatic with balsamic vinegar. Between the vinegar that scented the fish, however, and the tangle of herbs that covered it, the dish was all flair and very little true seafood savor. In addition, the snapper, which should have been delicate and flaky, was dry and chewy. I had tried this recipe in the first weeks of Escopazzo's opening and it was wonderful, moist and mouth-watering, the dough sealing in steam while the fish cooked. The inconsistency was apparent, and disappointing.

No inconsistencies on my plate of four colossal tiger prawns, though -- they were all overcooked, every one of them. Naked knights, they had been shelled of their armor but not their heads. Despite the overdoneness, their flavor was good, accentuated by a light smear of herbs and olive oil. But I was misled by the description on the menu: "sauteed with broccoli florets." Make that floret, along with a similar piece of cauliflower, an artichoke, and a single stalk of asparagus. These same vegetables garnished every main course.

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We fared better with the other entrees. Loin slices of veal were delicate and rich in a sage sauce enhanced by white wine from the region of Friuli. The rounds were topped with powerful pieces of chopped leek that tasted almost pickled, and a silky puree of potato finished the plate. The blend of flavors was arresting.

A skin-on breast of free-range guinea hen (related to the pheasant and raised all over the world) was stuffed with herbs, raisins, and pine nuts, then rolled and sliced. These mild medallions had a delightful contradiction of textures, from the crackle of the skin and crunch of the pine nuts to the soft give of the fowl and juicy burst of the raisins.

Dessert was another positive note, and, according to my guests, vied with the bread basket as the highlight of the meal. But unlike the intense country olive and sun-dried tomato loaves Escopazzo buys each day from the local bakery Biga, all desserts are made on the premises. Unfortunately, the restaurant only offered two on the night of our visit, and one of them was tiramisu, at best a tiresome treat. We opted for the torte (according to our waiter, we were served a "tart"; there's a big difference between the two), a light chocolate cake layered with amaretto-flavored whipped cream and walnuts, on a tangy-sweet raspberry puree.

Had we started with dessert, we would have anticipated a wonderful meal. But the service would have been poor regardless of the order of courses. In a restaurant this small, I anticipated better than the usual South Beach inattention. I at least expected my waiter to look at me as he took my order, rather than at who was walking through the door. I also wanted my water to be refilled, my wine to be poured for me, and my food to be served hot, not lukewarm. I even (the nerve!) could have used a second cup of coffee before the check arrived. Perhaps my high expectations were the problem; I had heard such praise about Escopazzo. Going crazy? Yes, it was, and unless the service improves and the fare gains consistency, I'd have to be nuts to return. Forget occasional brilliance. What South Beach needs is something sane.

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