Prompted by my remark a few columns ago linking Oggi Caffe to Cafe Prima Pasta, Prima Pasta's owner Gerardo Cea called me. "We don't buy our pasta from Oggi any more," he said, clearly agitated. "They cut us off. For a year and a half now, we make our own." He proceeded to list a litany of complaints against Oggi owners Eloy Roy (his cousin by marriage) and Alex Portela, insisting Portela has been talking trash about Prima Pasta and even threatening his staff.
In retaliation, Cea said, he has stopped referring customers to his cousin's 79th Street Causeway restaurant when his own 71st Street eatery is too busy; now he sends them a few blocks in the other direction to Cafe Ragazzi, owned by his good friend Emilio di Carlo. (The third trattoria to open in the general area after Oggi and Prima Pasta, Ragazzi also depended on Oggi's distinctive pasta before being struck off the purveying list last year.) In fact, Ragazzi is the only place where Cea himself will dine.
"I don't want to go against them or them to go against me," Eloy Roy responds diplomatically. But though he downplays the conflict, he is plainly furious about Cea's charges. In return, he accuses his cousin of mimicking Oggi's philosophy, from the number of seats to the preparation of dishes to the actual layout of the menu (a similarity I noted in my review of Prima Pasta). Cea's allegations regarding his partner Portela, Roy adds, are nonsense; in fact he caught Cea handing out Prima Pasta business cards while dining free at Oggi. Moreover, he goes on, he didn't cut off Prima Pasta -- it was Cea who quit buying pasta from him. As for Cafe Ragazzi, according to Roy they discontinued their daily order after he and Portela opened Caffe Da Vinci on Kane Concourse -- in a location Ragazzi had coveted.
And I thought writers were a back-stabbing lot.
If Matteo Giuffrida suspects that his six-week-old Surfside trattoria Matteo & Alfredo lies smack in the middle of a battlefield, he doesn't much care. Despite Cea's claims that Giuffrida dismissed Ragazzi as a "low-budget pizza place," Giuffrida denies the accusation. "I am for everybody," he says. In the actions-speak-louder-than-words department, let it be known that Giuffrida's partner Alfredo Alvarez is concurrently the executive chef at Giacosa in Coral Gables and is a former student of Giuffrida who still occasionally calls his teacher "maestro" when he stops by to "steal recipes." Competition seems far from Giuffrida's mind.
This lack of concern stems from a well-earned confidence. In 1986 Giuffrida inaugurated Beijing's first Italian restaurant, called El Tula, in the Shangri-La Hotel. The veteran chef went on to open and run Alfredo's the Original of Rome locations in Miami in 1988, New York in 1994, and Boca Raton in 1995. He's used to big kitchens and bigger egos; the walls of Matteo & Alfredo are covered with diplomas, accolades, and pictures of the chef with star customers. This small-pond stuff doesn't excite his interest. His 40-seat trattoria, which reminds him of his grandmother's restaurant in Apulia (in southern Italy), does.
Though he might miss the generous salary and regret having to take out a second mortgage on his home, Giuffrida is finally free of corporate politics and rigid menus. Now, he says, "I can do the things I do at home when I have my day off." Those things include peppering his Italian dishes with ingredients culled from the East, pushing the olive oil envelope with sesame oil, and replacing oils altogether with soy sauce and lemon rind for flavorful, fat-free eating.
Like the Latin-Asian fusion cuisine served up at Two Sisters restaurant (in the Hyatt Regency in Coral Gables), Matteo & Alfredo's combos sound weird on paper -- beef carpaccio with Parmesan and bamboo shoots, tuna carpaccio with oyster and soy sauces -- but they tend to work. A wonderfully successful salad paired sea scallops with flying-fish roe. Braised briefly in sesame oil and a trio of sauces A soy, oyster, and a tomato-flavored Vietnamese fish sauce Giuffrida calls shizaky A the scallops were delicate and pearly, piled over pale stalks of endive and vibrant leaves of spinach. Wasabi-scented, green-tinged flying-fish caviar, bursting individually in the mouth, provided tasty textural contrast. The menu changes daily, but this starter should be a keeper.
Spinach also surrounded a more traditional Italian appetizer, a triple tier of homemade mozzarella, eggplant, and sliced plum tomato. Laced with extra-virgin olive oil, the cheese was velvety and mild, sandwiched by the pieces of soft, skin-on eggplant, while juicy tomatoes splashed color onto the earthy landscape.