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South Dixie Sausage

In terms of romantic ambiance, the location of this Italian-American eatery would initially seem best described as convenient; it's in the supremely low-rent Redbird Mall, and except for some very cute 3-D paintings of Italian street scenes (similar to the Scull sisters' playful old Havana constructions), the décor is basic luncheonette. The not quite year-old Mario is, however, right next to what many aficionados consider Miami's most authentic Japanese food source, Matsuri, making it ideally located for sneaking some strengthening slices while waiting for one's otoro and other more delicate dietetic delights. And after all, an equally unatmospheric uptown location, on a strip of West Dixie Highway best known for car/appliance repair shops, hasn't prevented Mario's parent restaurant from thriving since 1969.

Fans of the original beloved budget-priced red-sauce joint will be happy to hear that everything I've tried at the newer branch has been identical, for better or worse. Dispensing with the bad news first, the house salad is the same iceberg-based boredom, and a request for a substitution of romaine (which I knew was available since there's a caesar salad on the menu) was countered with the suggestion that I order a caesar salad. Duh. The caesar was okay, but for $2 more than the regular salad, the $4.25 plate of lettuce and mediocre pregrated Parmesan should have been prepared tableside as well as considerably larger than it was; romaine just isn't that much more expensive than iceberg lettuce.

A $5.25 combination cold sub was nothing to write home about, either, due to so-so ingredients. Obviously domestic salami, ham, boiled ham, and capicollo weren't even the quality of the cold cuts in standard supermarket subs, much less Italian imports; garnishes were limited to iceberg lettuce and unripe tomatoes (no onions, peppers, or pickles); and the soft roll was soggy, too unsubstantial to stand up to the sandwich's watery vinegar/dried oregano dressing. Hot subs are the way to go at Mario; the $5 eggplant Parmesan was firm and flavorful, the $5.75 green pepper/sausage model supreme.

Info

Mario the Baker

5755 Bird Rd., Miami, FL

Open daily 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. (Friday and Saturday to 11:00 p.m. Call 305-665-0941.

The same scrumptious sausage is available as a main dish or à la carte side and as a topping on spaghetti or pizza, and is recommended in any of these forms; totally lacking in the unpleasantly musky overtone that mars most commercially made Italian sausage, Mario's homemade stuff sparks with freshness, and is so spicily savory it'd surely make even a car tire palatable. Since Mario's spaghetti, both here and uptown, has always been too thin and too soft for my taste (I prefer number 12 spaghetti to number 11, and find any pasta that's not cooked al dente, as in Italy, wasted calories), my favorite frame for the sausage is pizza. This is no more authentically Italian than Mario's pasta, but is darned good New York-style pizza with a characterful crust and assertive, tangy tomato sauce. Although carnivores would be crazy to not order the sausage topping -- as well as, preferably, the also homemade and also excellent meatballs -- vegetarians are not shortchanged. Vegetable toppings are fresh here, even the mushrooms (none of those nasty canned buttons), just as at more designer-priced pizzerias. Mario's large cheese pies are $9 ($6.99 on Mondays).

But let's cut to the crucial question: Did Mario's famed garlic rolls survive the transition downtown? Superbly! Each pasta, salad, or main dish order comes with three of the city's best garlic rolls, but don't make the mistake of thinking three is enough. A dozen rolls ($3) is not too many -- especially not on a first date. Because any prospective love who shies away from these chewy crunchy-crusted beauties, demurring that the lusty amount of garlic/parsley oil drenching them is too much, is bound to be bad in bed, guaranteed. In this respect, this humble luncheonette is the most romantic location in town.

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