Moving Targets

For the past six months, Coral Gables eateries have been playing the restaurant version of leap-frog, musical chairs, and hide-and-seek. Didier's gave up its Alcazar Avenue location to Mozart Stube, only to resurface months later on Ponce de Leon Boulevard. Justa Pasta, whose husband-and-wife ownership team Doug and Maureen Cogen recently divorced, moved into Cilantro's old Giralda Avenue space -- Cindy Rothman, chef-owner of Cilantro, decamped altogether, to Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami -- now under the sole auspices of Mrs. Cogen; Mr. Cogen opened Cogen's Pasta & Grille on Almeria Avenue at the failed La Sacrestia site.

The reason for this confusing hopscotch is actually quite simple: The best way to avoid regulatory red tape is to move into a space recently vacated by another restaurant. When you buy out the lease, you also transfer the certificate of use. Which goes a long way toward explaining why, when Justa Pasta vacated its original Palermo Avenue locale, landlord and realtor Joyce Kegley was left with two choices: Either she could find a new tenant or she could run the restaurant herself. And after eight months of no-such-luck, she chose the latter option. Hence the February 1 debut of Peppy's in the Gables.

Head chef Domenic De Muro, a twelve-year veteran of Il Pappagallo, was quite literally "born into restaurants"; his pregnant mother abandoned the stoves of her Carmela's Italian Restaurant in South Miami with barely enough time to make it to the emergency room. Days later, the infant De Muro was being cradled by steam and weaned on the warm smells of cheese, pasta, and tomatoes. At Peppy's, De Muro is perfecting his mother's recipes, duplicating her delicacy with sauces, her nimbleness with pasta, her generosity of portions.

The waitstaff, by contrast, is nowhere near as experienced as the kitchen. Our party of five was offered a choice between the two worst tables in the house: right next to the door or directly in front of the keyboard and amplifier belonging to Mac MacDonald, who sets up at Peppy's Wednesday through Sunday and "entertains" with musical stylings that would be more appropriate at a bar mitzvah. A 70-seat establishment, barely half-full, could easily have devised a better seating arrangement, especially given that we had made a reservation.

Matters did not immediately improve. Placing a drink order took twenty minutes, and our wine, a thin, tannic house merlot I do not recommend (the list of Italian, French, and California wines is enticing and fairly priced) was poured eons before our water, just as the plate of roasted and mashed garlic, mixed with too much extra-virgin olive oil at the table, was served ages before the bread. The condescending explanation that accompanied the garlic A how it was made (the whole head was roasted in the oven) and what it should be used for (as a replacement for butter) A and the unnecessary dousing of olive oil made me cringe. This is Coral Gables, after all, and diners who strap on the ol' feedbag here usually possess palates that are at least marginally sophisticated.

Regardless, the garlic was wonderfully sweet and nutty, the right condiment for crusty slices of fresh Italian bread. A variety of spicy olives, peppery and perfumed with bay leaves, was another on-the-house treat.

We continued our first course with calamari fritti, the circles of tentacles slightly too chewy, the battered coating not greasy, exactly, but certainly tasting of the oil in which the squid was fried. The marinara dipping sauce, however, was excellent, chunky with onions and tangy with tomatoes. I was relieved to detect no artificial sweetness in it, a flaw that afflicts many a cucina's marinara.

Roasted red and yellow peppers, a dish I've seen on many appetizer lists lately, suffered from a lack of flavor. Limp with olive oil and unsparked by the garlic with which they had purportedly been roasted, the peppers were overwhelmed by the crisp and pleasantly bitter radicchio leaves that embraced them. A better balance was provided by another appetizer, the bruschetta, three large pieces of the restaurant's fantastic bread, toasted and topped with chopped tomatoes, scallions, and basil. Bursting with juice and sharp savor, the tomatoes looked and tasted as if they had been marinating in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and the bread stood firm under their not-too-wet weight.

An appropriately robust balsamic vinaigrette dresses Peppy's salad, which is served with every entree. We asked our waitress if we could replace the house salad with a caesar, a privilege for which we would be willing to pay extra. Her answer was a flat "No," uttered in a tone of voice that surprised me, especially given that the caesar is priced a dollar less than the insalate di casa. In fairness, though, our entire party delighted in the house version, red leaf and bibb lettuces loaded with creamy, pungent gorgonzola and accented by ripe tomatoes.

Choosing main courses was difficult (Peppy's offers 35 meat, seafood, chicken, and pasta dishes, plus nightly specials), but unlike the starters, most eclipsed our expectations. We ordered two different pastas, one of which was homemade (De Muro makes some of the pastas and purchases others; if you have a preference for fresh, stick to the fettuccine, pappardelle, ravioli, or agnolotti). A special that evening, an outstanding fettuccine with shrimp and lobster, comprised the handmade egg pasta in a tasty pink sauce (which prompted another explanation from our waitress: marinara + Alfredo = pink). The noodles were garnished with enough shrimp and Florida lobster tail meat to satisfy the largest appetite.

Linguine nere con pesce, black linguine threaded with shrimp and scallops, provided a pretty contrast in colors. Also dressed with a pink sauce, the pasta relied a bit too heavily on the tomatoes, lending the dish a sugary accent it didn't need. But the seafood was nicely done, rendering the dish a commendable effort overall.

Bay scallops, conghiglie limone, were barely but disappointingly overcooked, too done by a scant few seconds. The sauce in which they had been sauteed, however, was a joy. Lemon, garlic, sweet butter, and white wine paid tangy and surprisingly rich dividends, clinging like a thicker Alfredo sauce to the linguine served with the scallops.

The house uses only boneless breasts for its chicken dishes, which can be both a danger (in terms of overcooking) and a pleasure (no mess). Pollo pizzaiola was purely the latter, large, juicy, and tender, blanketed by an expertly tended red sauce. De Muro has a way of coaxing his tomatoes to retain their innate sweetness, not allowing their descent into acidity. Onions and mushrooms contributed subtle earthy goodness, a dash of rose wine and a sprinkle of oregano finishing the dish admirably.

Veal devotees will find the Dante to be a delicious inferno of flavors paired with an unusual presentation. Veal medallions were stuffed with prosciutto, provolone, sweet peas, and mushrooms, then rolled in crushed almonds and baked, emerging from the oven looking like fried ice cream. At the table, the server slices in half this tartufo-shape ball, ladling over the veal a lovely and light sauce of Marsala wine, cherry tomatoes, and mushrooms. We ordered ours without cheese and were pleased by the lack of fuss that attended this particular request, evidence that the chef cooks to order.

De Muro also makes most of his own desserts. The menu lists only amaretto mousse and tiramisu, but others are available on a nightly basis. On the night we visited, amaretto cheesecake was exceptional, a fluff of cheese and aromatic liqueur. Sfogliatelli, supplied by Protano's Bakery in Hollywood, was a pert pastry filled with cheese and candied fruit.

Despite her inexperience as a restaurateur, Joyce Kegley possesses two vital strengths: her business acumen and her chef. Innovative touches A menus, for instance, are folded and sealed with golden stickers like invitations and become the property of the diner upon opening A also help distinguish Peppy's from the area's other restaurants, a majority of which are Italian. My lone request? Stay put, Peppy. I'd like to be able to find you again.

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