Siren Song

Marcello Fiorentino changed the way Americans eat; he just can't change the way they drink.

It has been many months, if not to say years, that we have been as agreeably impressed with a restaurant as we were this week with the Capriccio. There are few restaurants in New York that might surpass it, and it is probably the finest restaurant on Long Island... A fettucine Alfredo was laudable, rich and creamy; the linguine with clam sauce was conspicuously good, even the linguine with marinara sauce was very much worthwhile.

"Agreeably impressed." "Conspicuously good." "Very much worthwhile." You've gotta love it. That was the inimitable Craig Claiborne, New York Times food critic and bon vivant, describing in high old style the charms of a Long Island restaurant now defunct.

This matters to us for two reasons. The first is that when Capriccio opened in 1970, it was virtually the first restaurant in New York to serve haute Italian, mixing it up with a whisper of a French accent, and introducing stunned New Yorkers to dishes they had never tasted before: rigatoni alla vodka, chicken Gismonda, veal zingara, salads of bresaola, and ethereal, alcoholic zabaglione. It's hard to believe any restaurant critic could once have written wonderingly about the now ubiquitous alla vodka sauce: "a kind of crazy name for a dish of pasta served in a light but creamy tomato sauce," as one New York Newsday writer did in 1974. She went on to note that Capriccio's owner, Capri-born Marcello Fiorentino, confided that he doused the sauce with vodka at the last minute. It was an epiphanic moment for American Italian cuisine.

Joe Rocco

Which brings us to the second reason Claiborne's assessment of Capriccio's matters. Marcello Fiorentino moved to West Palm Beach in 1986 and opened Marcello's La Sirena on Dixie Highway, in a weird sliver of a building shaped like a wedge of cheese, a modernist church, or a sailing vessel, depending on your point of view. The odd little building still stands; Marcello Sr., sadly, died ten years later, but his son Marcello continues to serve many of the dishes from Capriccio's original menu, including the rigatoni alla vodka, the Dover sole, the Scampi Marcello, the bresaola and the zabaglione.

So dining at La Sirena is a culinary history lesson. But it may also turn out to be, for some of us, a crash course in the culture of the haute bourgeoisie — we'll get to that in a minute. There's also a learning curve happening with the process of making a reservation. Because you can't get one at a decent dinner hour. If you'd like your meal on Saturday night, they might be able to squeeze you in (the cramped dining room seats 40) at 9 p.m. But you'll wait 20 minutes for a menu, and you'll be pretty well toasted on glasses of Terre di Tufi (a Tuscan white, $12) before your appetizer arrives at 10. Your entrée will come bustling from the kitchen promptly 50 minutes later. By the time you've gasped through your last bite of zabaglione with raspberries, the gong will be striking midnight and you might just stumble outside to find your Mercedes turned into a pumpkin.

I don't personally mind leisurely meals — more time for the wine! — but some might. If so, make a reservation a week in advance, for a mid-week meal, and try to get in around 7:30 or 8. It's still going to be numbingly noisy (imagine 37 Palm Beach matrons all screaming at each other over plates of spinach cannelloni) due to the low ceilings. And you may occasionally feel like you've stumbled into the unwritten second act of No Exit. "Hell is other people," Sartre would say.

But La Sirena is worth experiencing at least once, if only as an excuse to cogitate on the way Italian cuisine has changed and charged the landscape of our foodie existence. And also to experience close up and personal, to rub shoulders at the trough with, the polo players and socialites, the helmet-haired doyennes and the choleric plutocrats, who have snagged all the 7:30 tables well before you. Because the filthy rich love La Sirena. Aristocrat or not, you'll be well-treated here. The white-jacketed waiters are unwaveringly astute, as harried as they are, materializing suddenly to pull out your chair when you return from the restroom (to find your napkin carefully refolded). And there's plenty of intelligent help with the wine list, a tome of Biblical proportions.

It's an excellent wine list, in fact, of Wine Spectator-award-winning caliber. Which makes you wonder as you look around why practically everybody is drinking Coca-Cola from glass bottles. I didn't notice until my second visit, but when I did, I felt a ghastly chill. It must be some Palm Beach thing, sort of like a prep-school tie or a club handshake, a secret code that the über-rich use to identify each other. Or has everyone just come from the Wednesday night AA meeting? And how could one possibly drink cola with clams origanati? This line didn't bear further scrutiny, unless I wanted to conclude that nobody eating at La Sirena gave a good god damn about the food.

Too bad for them. We did, so we went at it, trying to ignore the strangeness blossoming around us. One woman had tucked her napkin into the back of her collar, so it draped behind her like a queen's ermine. Another table of four were eating as if they'd just been released from prison, literally shoveling food into their mouths, bent close to the table, glassy eyed and puffing.

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