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.

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.

We just took a deep breath and began our three-hour, four-course meal with those clams origanati, plump and sizzling under a sprinkling of bread crumbs and garlic, a plash of white wine and olive oil, and some freshly chopped oregano ($9). The insalata Bellisima ($10), a special, a blend of lovingly cultivated and spankingly fresh microgreens, was tossed with gorgonzola and walnuts in a tart house dressing. The standout salad was the antipasto La Stalla ($9), made with the air-dried, spice-rubbed beef of Lombardy called bresaola, still difficult to find in the States. Even sliced as thin as this was, it still retained its very visceral, deeply maroon hue — the color of a beating heart; and it tasted pleasantly musty and sweet. Served with tiny leaves of arugula, fresh shavings of parmigiano, and a film of olive oil and lemon, this was mighty delightful stuff. On my second visit, I had a perfect caesar salad ($8), salty with chopped anchovies and chunky homemade croutons. One of the better caesars in this vicinity.

In due time, our primi piatti arrived, a beautiful half-order of plump lobster ravioli ($12, a special), cradled in a velvety tomato cream and lobster liquor sauce. The lobster was chunky and buttery, the handmade ravioli carefully cooked to an exacting degree of pliancy. (We tried this again on our second visit, when it was still on special over a week later, and I'm sorry to report it tasted like it hadn't aged gracefully). We also had lovely little clouds of potato gnocchi alla Sorrentina ($8), lightly tossed in a pure tomato sauce with garlic and basil, then baked briefly with melting chunks of homemade mozzarella. Both the pastas were terrifically stimulating.

Secondi piatti. Petti di pollo Pizzaiola ($20) made a tasty and relatively inexpensive main course. Pounded chicken breasts were doused in a piquant sauce, a sort of puttanesca of sautéed tomatoes with black olives, garlic, and capers. A fillet of Dover sole ($36) was a classic carry-over from Capriccio, delicate and dreamlike in its sheath of brown butter, exceedingly moist, scented with lemon. But scampi Marcello ($34) was the revelation — huge shrimp butterflied in their shell and finished with a fine sauce of sherry, butter, garlic and mustard. You fork the meat from the shell and it's as dazzling as lobster — the sherry and mustard giving it flickers of depth and heat.

I'm not sure what happened the Wednesday we went back, but our main courses were so oversalted they were barely edible — both the veal saltimbocca and a special dish of spaghetti with homemade veal meatballs; and as noted, the lobster ravioli, had lost their zing. Maybe the chef got word of the coke guzzlers and just gave up on subtle flavorings, realizing that nobody would notice anyway.

It's been a long time since I've had zabaglione ($14), but in homage to Capriccio's, I felt I should. Who but the Italians could have invented this warm, sun-colored bowl of egg froth, emanating sweet, alcoholic, Marsala-infused vapors? Surely the mad Spanish chef Ferran Adria's "cloud of carrot" and "lemon foam," his "red fruit espuma" are just variations on this hoary old Italian dessert. Perhaps they're an improvement. But I doubt it. The succulent red raspberries at the bottom of the dish were buried jewels.

I confess I don't know how, exactly, to feel about La Sirena. The crowd of regulars is stunningly weird. The noise level is well nigh unbearable. The pace of the dining on Saturday night was enough to try even my unflappable patience. The food ranged from smart and elegant one night to practically ruined the next. But the experience never felt dull, and I guess that regulars must adore this 30-year-old institution the way you'd have a soft spot for some aging contessa who once set her world on edge, regal if wrinkled, sometimes impossible in her whims and inexplicable in her habits. But at times, it seems, the lady can still turn a phrase to take your breath away.

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