Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

Who could pass up a restaurant that last year ran away with Best Restaurant with a Chef Named Vinnie honors in New Times, and this year was named Best Inexpensive Italian Restaurant? Not me. After all, I spent my crucial years in a beer-and-shot town that boasted an Italian-American Club for every province of the boot - not to mention dozens of restaurants with musical names, such as Garerri's House of Spaghetti, Sanginitti's, Iacomini's, and De Luca's.

So it was with great expectations that my dining companion and I ambled over to Vinnie's Kitchen Italian Restaurant on Douglas Road, practically on the corner of Southwest Eighth Street. The shrinking violet of Miami's Italian restaurants, Vinnie's doesn't boast a big neon sign, an impatient line of patrons out front, straw chianti bottles perched above the tables, or piped-in Dean Martin serenading, "That's Amore." The dimly lighted place is about as glitzy - and lively - as a Christian Science Reading Room.

And even though other restaurants around town may have a more festive ambiance, and may even do a better job on breads, salads, and sides, Vinnie's sauce conjures warm memories of aproned Italian grandmothers in my old neighborhood, relentlessly stirring gigantic pots full of tomato sauce and regaling us with tall tales about the evil eye.

We got our first taste of Vinnie's wonderful sauce with our appetizer. We shared an order of mozzarella marinara ($4.25), a generous serving of creamy cheese covered with a perfectly seasoned, aromatic marinara. If you do not care for cheese, rest assured that the other two appetizers offered at Vinnie's also come with this marvelous tomato sauce, mussels marinara ($5.95), and sausage and green peppers $4.25). As for the formaggio itself, it was fried to a delicate crisp in an egg batter, which darkened only slightly to a golden hue.

With two dozen pasta dishes, including baked ones, it is petty to complain about the apparent dearth of garlic bread or buns at Vinnie's - and the fact that we saw our waiter pull our "garden" salads from a refrigerator case. Certainly there was nothing wrong with the one small chewy roll each of us was served, or the slightly tired iceberg lettuce salad containing precisely one wedge of unripe tomato, one green olive, and so few pieces of grated carrots and purple cabbage that they added more color than taste. But such lackluster sides seem at odds with the dashing starters and main events. We really did miss washing down our meals with chianti, too, or even the jug wine of our youth called Paisano. The full carafe ($8) of white wine we were served was delivered to the table senza the habitual ice bucket and it was already tepid. Vinnie's vintage, I'm sorry to say, had about as much character as Slick Willie.

All was somewhat forgiven when our entrees arrived steaming hot at our table. My dining companion's choice of spaghetti and sausage ($7.95) was masterful. The sauce was appropriately spicier than the marinara served with our fried cheese, and complemented perfectly the smooth-textured sausage, which Vinnie has flown in from New York.

For comparison's sake, I chose a non-tomato-based dish, which unfortunately did not stand up to my dining companion's. The fettuccini carbonara ($7.95) was a melange of chewy, eggy-tasting pasta coated in a rather thin sauce of butter, cream, egg, and cheese - but the meat generously strewn throughout was so pedestrian as to be subterranean. And the pieces of scrambled egg in his classic preparation, which suggest a beginning cook carelessly overheating the pan, are a travesty. Rather than a salty pancetta or a smoked bacon, the porcine pork morsels in my dish were rectangular cubes of Bolo-variety, unacceptably bland ham. Another omission, in my estimation, was black pepper - the sobriquet "carbonara" comes from the Italian word carbone, or coal, so fresh-ground pepe nero is a must in this dish. Ironically, while my dining companion's dish tasted as authentic as an anisette toast at a wedding in Calabria, mine tasted Americanized.

But we will return to Vinnie's to try all the many dishes with the wonderful pomodoro-based sauces. In addition to the pasta entrees, spaghetti is served with a host of eggplant, chicken, veal, snapper, shrimp, and squid main dishes. The restaurant also features a special each day, and it is genuinely "special" - as in particularly reasonable - in price. On the night we visited, the handwritten notice read: $8.95 - chicken and peppers, side of spaghetti, and salad. And we applaud the restaurant for featuring - Mama mia! - some actual Italian desserts rather than key lime pie and other aberrations so often distinguishing the menus of some so-called Italian restaurants here. Among the goodies at Vinnie's are your basic cannoli ($2.25) and spumoni ($1.75).

As we left Vinnie's, the restaurant was in good hands. Two pasta-engorged Miami cops on supper break were quietly playing chess at a table in the back, a woman with a child was perched on a stool at the counter chatting with the waiter, and Vinnie, well, I like to think he was in the kitchen whipping up a new batch of Miami's most marvelous marinara.

827 SW 37th Ave; 567-9692. Open Sunday - Thursday from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. to midnight.

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