Restaurant Reviews

Bohemian Rhapsody

The thing is, the more simple, the more difficult it is," Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan once said, in regards to preparing food. "When you do a dish and you do two things, and one of them is wrong...." She didn't need to finish the sentence. Italian cooking is about letting the natural flavors of a few ingredients speak for themselves. Soya & Pomodoro, an informal, mostly outdoor Italian eatery downtown, and Con Tutto Pizza A La Pala & Grill, an informal, mostly outdoor Italian/Uruguayan eatery on Calle Ocho, both ascribe to the fundamental fare of which Ms. Hazan speaks. This pair of fun and funky establishments are extemely atmospheric, too. And easy on the wallet.

"Simple food made with love" is Soya & Pomodoro's motto, and the very first bites of melanzane alla parmigiana convinced us of that sentiment's sincerity. A wisp of the cleanly fried eggplant, sprightly sauced and cheesed, was so lightly delicate as to taste weightless. More uncontrived pleasures followed: ravioli pillows of minced porcini mushrooms and ricotta cheese, sauced with basic pomodoro; fresh crêpes (camilloni) rolled with spinach and ricotta, topped with pomodoro and bechamel; and bistecca con peperoni e capperi, a juicy, pan-seared sirloin steak sided by roasted red peppers, capers, and garlic, and served with roasted potatoes.

Lasagna, the only missed note, brought to bear Ms. Hazan's warning about the difficulty of simplicity. Wavy noodles were cooked just right, but there wasn't enough cheese to balance the beefy bolognese sauce, which dominated to the point of making the dish seem like a sloppy joe on pasta.

As good as the food here is — and it is very good — Soya & Pomodoro is one of those rare restaurants where ambiance makes everything taste even better. The main, indoor room has just three tables, a counter, and a ventanita that steamed espressos get slapped down upon. But the ambiance is to be found in the partially open-air dining area next door, the former lobby of the Lincoln Bank. The space is still defined by that property's arched, wrought-iron entrance and tattered yellow walls that exude a palpable sense of ruin — with some imagination, you might think you're in an underground subway station from the original Planet of the Apes set. Except this description doesn't quite do the place justice, as there exists an earnest, unpretentious beauty to Soya, like some strangely seductive and rustic trattoria you might accidentally stumble upon on an ancient, cobblestoned side street of Venice.

Or Pompeii, which is where owner Armando Alfano, something of a Frank Zappa lookalike, is from. When he opened the restaurant two years ago with his Thai wife, the menu contained more health-oriented foods, but sales of such indicated that the downtown clientele wasn't ready. Armando runs the business on his own now, and the "soya" element is limited to a soy burger among the sandwich selections. All lunches come with a basket of bread (regular and whole wheat baguettes), and a house salad of crisp greens, shredded carrots, and red onion. Everything costs less than $10 (excepting salmon and steaks, which top out at $11), prices kept down by skimping on portions rather than quality.

Eminently drinkable wines are similarly affordable ($4 per glass, $24 to $46 per bottle), homemade tiramisu is wondrously soft, and service is amiable and attentive. The lone gripe about Soya & Pomodoro is that it's mainly a breakfast and lunch place, open for dinner on Thursday nights only. Do yourself a favor and make it here on that evening, when local musicians play their instruments and, as Armando aptly puts it, "a Buena Vista type of thing" goes on. The scene is, in fact, a bohemian rhapsody rousing our moribund downtown from its slumber until well past midnight.

Con Tutto puts on a lively display every night. The indoor dining room is small and ramshackle — like Soya, it boasts a ventanita, and, like Soya, you'll probably prefer eating outdoors. The alfresco setting is an alluring alleyway with logs of wood leaning along one brick wall, and a blazing brick furnace/parilla on the opposite side. Sitting out here during summertime could conceivably become hot as hell, but what a heavenly spot to dine on a cool or even temperate Miami evening. Heavenly, that is, if you order properly and/or get lucky.

Things started well with warm, crusty flautas, Uruguayans' daily, baguettelike bread. Exemplary empanadas followed, the dough pale and fresh, the fillings a choice of spinach, minced beef, moistly sauced chicken, or, my favorite, thick hunks of ham with a slice of cheese and a heavy dose of oregano. An eighteen-inch pizza, delivered spread over two plates, was sensational, and alone worth coming here for. The thick crust, charred and smeared with a gossamer of tomato sauce, forms a plush, luscious foundation for bubbling cheese, thin tomato slices, black olives, garlic, and oregano.

Chivitos were splendid as well, each mile-high Uruguayan sandwich piled with a flimsy minute steak, ham, cheese, fried egg, pimientos, olives, mayo, Russian salad, and french fries — a heart attack hoagie, if you will, but delicious. Take some of that chivito home in a doggie bag if you must, but save room for rich desserts such as creamy flan with dulce de leche piped on top, or the irresistible chaja, a delightful dome of poached meringue over a mound of whipped cream, peaches, sponge cake, and dulce de leche.

Despite all of the worthwhile fare to be found here, Con Tutto's dishes are not uniformly successful. The red sauce barely clinging to a pair of crêpelike spinach canneloni was insufficiently seasoned, and the same blandness blemished a side of Russian salad (potato salad with peas and carrots). "Cooking that lacks salt, lacks flavor," as Ms. Hazan wrote, and these words should be translated into Spanish and hung upon Con Tutto's kitchen walls. A side of french fries arrived as cold as that last comment.

The parillada was disastrous, as were other main course meats. Worst part is, it needn't have been so. Logs of hard wood provide a flavorful flame to cook with, and the fresh, red meats tossed upon the parilla, which we saw on our way out of the restaurant, appeared to be just fine. Problem is, we were served the totally desiccated meats that we had passed on our way in, and which had obviously been sitting on the grill since lunchtime (we dined around 8:00 p.m.). The blood sausage and mild chorizo that comprised half of the parillada managed to retain a faint memory of moisture, but sweetbreads were as chewy as jerky, and to say that the short ribs tasted like leather would be highly insulting to leather. That's all the parillada comes with — at $14.99 for one person, not the best deal in town (though it's $22.99 for two, and if a trio shares it's $29.99, plus three kidneys are thrown in. Seriously).

Flank and skirt steaks are offered a la carte. We ordered the latter, and it managed to accomplish the impossible — it made the short ribs seem almost juicy by comparison. A molecular dehydrating machine couldn't suck this much moisture from meat, and after some postdinner musing, I determined that it was the driest specimen of beef that I'd ever encountered in any restaurant or home — and that includes my aunt Esther's brisket, which my uncle likes to say has killed more Jews than Hitler.

Were our poor meals a happenstance — a matter of bad timing? Certainly, but food this bad making it out to the dining room represents a serious breach on all levels of the restaurant. What does it say for a cook who would serve such meats? What does it say for management, and quality control, or lack thereof? Even the waiter, who was cordial but did not provide especially noteworthy service, should have said to the cook — "Hey, I can't serve this, put fresh food on the parilla!"

I returned to Con Tutto a few nights later and tried a flank steak. This time I was luckier — it was recently grilled and medium rare as requested (without prompting, as on neither visit did the waiter ask at what doneness we wanted our meats). I'm not thrilled when I have to rely on timing and luck for an edible dinner, so I'll either stick to the pizza when I come here, or keep a close eye on the parilla if I order meats. But just as I surely will make it back to Soya & Pomodoro, I will return to Tutto, too.

Soya & Pomodoro, 120 NE 1st Street, Miami; 305-381-9511. Open for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., for happy hour Friday 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Open for dinner Thursday only, 9:00 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Con Tutto Pizza A La Pala & Grill, 1380 SW 8th St., Miami; 305-858-0255. Open Tuesday through Thursday 2:00 to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 2:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., and Sunday 2:00 to 11:00 p.m.

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Miami New Times' restaurant reviewer for the past decade, and the world's indisputable master of disguise.
Contact: Lee Klein