Restaurant Reviews

Pasta Masters

Not very long ago, consumption of pasta was reserved for Italians and marathon runners, who inhaled it for energy the night before a race. The rest of the general American public dined in pasta ignorance. We called it spaghetti no matter its thickness, sometimes referring to it as noodles. In restaurants, we ordered it with meatballs; at home, we cooked the boxed and dried version with tomato sauce, the less discerning of us substituting ketchup for marinara.

These days, pasta comes in shapes as bizarre as small radiators, spiced with oddities like jalapenos or chili peppers. We buy it fresh in supermarkets to cook at home, stir it into soups, make salads and desserts out of it. And we order it out all the time -- the public's overwhelming interest in pasta has led restaurants, Italian and otherwise, to focus on their own kitchens' versions. We'll even wait in line for it, as I did on a recent weekend evening at the new Cafe Prima Pasta.

Lines at Cafe Prima Pasta are hard to avoid. The restaurant has only 30 seats, a fact that's advertised on the front of the menu. Completely homemade fare, from bread to pasta to pastries, makes the place enticing. Its 71st Street location, in close proximity to both North Bay Village and Miami Beach, makes the seating competitive. A restaurant that opens here, especially one with prices reminiscent of a pizza parlor, better be prepared for an instant crush. Word of mouth spreads "like buttah" in these parts.

Cafe Prima Pasta may not yet be up to the challenge it has created for itself. If you judge solely by the crowd milling around outside, it appears to have been there for a successful number of years. If you judge by the service, however, which ranges from curt to courteous, or by the slightly uneven cuisine, Cafe Prima Pasta seems more like a fledgling endeavor that has been taken by surprise, a promising neighborhood restaurant where the entire neighborhood suddenly wants to dine -- all at the same time.

It's easy to forgive the quirks of a new restaurant, such as the blown fuse that banished us all briefly to darkness, and the absence of the proper number of place settings on the table. Both were corrected eventually (the fuse was fixed faster than our napkin dilemma; for the staff, cooking was understandably difficult in the dark; it was less important to them if their customers became so desperate for napkins they contemplated using the tablecloths.)

An incident that occurred before we were seated was harder for us to overcome. A quartet of elders pulled up to the curb in a Cadillac and exchanged conversational Italian with the host, who was outside adding names to his list. They were quickly seated ahead of the rest of us. In a restaurant this size, preferential seating is hard to disguise and should not even be attempted; had these people been promised a reservation, the host should have mentioned it when this action raised questions among the other hungry diners. Instead, when I commented that we had been waiting for some time, the host reprimanded me with, "Now don't start trouble with me." Hardly. I would never make a scene in a restaurant, but that's beside the point. Whatever happened to "the customer is always right"?

Apparently regretting his snappish remark, he immediately became all warmth and charm, an attitude I suspect was more in tune with his true nature as well as the nature of the restaurant, and seated us promptly. He also offered us complimentary glasses of wine by way of apology, though his duties as both host and server prevented him from delivering the drinks until well after our appetizers were served, and even then we had to make a request.

Our continual requests for service was a theme that would run throughout the meal, though water and the wonderful egg bread that is baked in the cafe's own ovens were thoughtfully replenished. Freshly ground pepper and cheese, grated from a hunk of aged Parmesan, were available but not offered to everyone, depending on how busy the server was at the time of meal delivery. One of my guests entreated the busboy to twist the pepper mill over our pasta; he obliged for that guest's plate only, turning away from the rest of us. We called him back. He repeated his mistake with the Parmesan. And at the end of the meal, another server took a companion's order for coffee without asking the other guests at the table about their requests. We called her back, too. Though glitches in service will most likely smooth out as this ensemble staff becomes used to working with each other, training will also help.

In contrast to the front of the house, the kitchen ran efficiently throughout the evening. We especially appreciated the timely appearance of our appetizers. The bruschetta, composed of two large toasted slices of Italian bread covered with coarsely chopped tomatoes and olive oil, was a solid, pleasant rendition. Happily the bread was still firm, lightly browned A a base that doesn't disintegrate under the moist pressure of tomatoes is a preference of mine. Large flecks of basil added a fresh pungency to the sweet tomatoes, and the whole was scented with garlic.

An antipasto of Italian salami, prosciutto, marinated eggplant, and roasted red peppers was a terrific complement to the bruschetta. The salty meats and tangy vegetables, topped with herbs and olive oil, was enough for our table of four to all have a taste. And the dressing leftover on the plate tempted us to absorb it with chunks of bread. My one complaint was the fatty prosciutto -- I like mine lean.

Not long after we quite literally polished our appetizer plates with the bread, the main course arrived. Naturally, we ordered pasta -- out of nineteen entrees listed on the menu, thirteen of them are pasta dishes.

In general, the kitchen had greater success with tomato sauces than it did with cream sauces. My spaghetti naturale, whole wheat pasta topped with chopped fresh tomatoes, garlic, and basil, was perhaps the best of the bunch. Handmade strands of the thin pasta were springy and perfectly al dente, and the tomatoes, similar to those topping the bruschetta, were laced with chunks of garlic. Linguine putanesca rosso, another dish prepared with fresh tomatoes, also had marinara added to it, as well as anchovies, capers, and black olives. The pasta itself looked and tasted suspiciously the same as the whole wheat version, but at least they were identically delicious. The sauce here had a nice amount of olives and capers, but the distinctive flavor of anchovies was not apparent.

The cream sauces suffered from too much bland sweetness and not enough zest. A special of the evening, green and black fettuccine with chunks of salmon, was an attractive twirl of lights and darks. It lacked balance, however -- the sauce was greatly improved by the tableside additions of cheese, salt, and pepper. The agnolotti pesto was diagnosed as suffering from the same blandness problem as well as an additional one -- stuffed with spinach and ricotta, the pasta was overcooked. The sauce, a cream pesto, supported basil and a few whole pine nuts but could have benefited from a greater infusion of traditional pesto -- ground garlic, basil, pine nuts, olive oil, and cheese -- to kick it up a level.

A standard tiramisu with its creamy cheese filling and a rather good apple tart with a rich shortbread crust and caramel sauce completed our meal. Overall, we were satisfied, though I could not help but compare Cafe Prima Pasta to local favorite Oggi Cafe and Deli, perhaps a mile away on the 79th Street Causeway. Both have exceedingly reasonable prices and make all foodstuffs on the premises; both have lines out the door. The menu items are eerily similar, as are the (sometimes) pushy clientele. One difference: Oggi has the benefit of experience -- with pasta and with customers. If restaurants like Oggi and Cafe Prima Pasta are the new trend in Italian restaurants, I welcome them, even if the latter does need just a few more weeks' apprenticeship.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick