I'll never forget the genuinely baffled look on my mother-in-law's face when the proprietors of a northern Chinese restaurant in North Miami Beach handed her a rather large ceramic Buddha as a souvenir. Here she'd been busy complimenting the folks, as is her métier, but I doubt she was expecting anything more than a fortune cookie for dessert. She accepted the Bud-dha, though, as graciously as she would a piece of Godiva chocolate. The restaurant is now out of business, but a little piece of it lives on in my in-laws' kitchen, where the Buddha currently holds court over a collection of equally fat-bellied teapots.
Recently, at a new little Galt Ocean Mile trattoria called When in Rome, I tried to channel her experience as a kind of ladylike guiding light. But as I so often do, I failed. When the owner of When in Rome greeted our table, he quickly realized that we were so enamored of his pizza that we'd ordered one for an appetizer and another for dinner. To show his appreciation, he hurried away only to return with a party favor for each woman -- a gilded thimble, enameled with a design of the Roman Coliseum. And I, being the reincarnated suffragette that I am, couldn't help but snicker. (Actually I'm told it was more of a snort, but I'll be kind to myself.)
Don't get me wrong. I understand the intent behind giving party favors to patrons -- after all, you want people to remember your restaurant. Items like fans or decorated chopsticks or even the miniature terra cotta plates that Anita's Grill Mexicano in Coral Springs gives out are just one commercialized, capitalistic step away from matchbooks and wrapped mints imprinted with the eatery's name. But I was a little mystified by the message, which aside from the implied chauvinism seemed to be, "When in Rome, do some sewing."
I'm sure the owner of When in Rome, who runs three additional establishments in Roma proper, isn't laying out a bundle for the thimbles, unless it's a bundle of shirts that are missing buttons. Or a bunch of bikinis that are missing strings -- the 35-seat storefront eatery is sandwiched between bathing-suit shops and other versions of old-Lauderdale retail joints. After all, thimbles that have been made in China, as reads the glued-on label, are the kind of souvenirs you can buy outside tourist-driven places like the Vatican (or the Great Wall, for that matter) for about 25 cents American.
Still, I submit that When in Rome would be better off marketing itself as what it is: not a latent tailor's shop but a damn good pizzeria. Want a real souvenir, one so evocative of Italy that all you have to do is look at it to be reminded of just how hot the Roman Coliseum is on a summer's day? Take home another 16-inch pizza, crust as thin as lace, toppings like shaved prosciutto di parma applied to the layer of fresh mozzarella cheese.
Oh, OK, so there's a flaw to my way of thinking. Another pizza isn't going to last very long in your house, just as it wouldn't in mine. So settle for a menu instead. That way, when you want something truly authentic, straight out of a wood-burning oven and crowned with items like pungent black olives, eggplant as thinly sliced as deli meats, or a yolk-intact fried egg, which adds amazing texture to such a papery crust, you can salivate over the hard copy while you anticipate the real thing.
As good as the pizza is -- and I am unequivocal about saying it's the best I've had in South Florida in a number of years -- it is not the only reason why When in Rome is such an eclectic treasure. Nor is the wine bar or the window-seat café tables or the live musicians playing everything from Moody Blues to main man Sinatra, though these elements do help maintain an atmosphere that's strictly urban Italy. Simply put, it's the other dishes on the menu, just as delicious and casually sophisticated, that elicit the same excited response from diners who may not fancy a slice.
Take, for instance, that precisely carved eggplant. It's truly so thin, it's translucent, a mere suggestion of eggplant. Layer seven or eight of these grilled slices on top of one another (but don't bread or deep-fry them), slather on some ricotta, and douse with a slow-cooked, unobtrusive marinara and you've got When in Rome's eggplant Parmesan. When you adore even the grease-saturated eggplant Parmesan you get in most places, as I do, this vegetable-savvy version, scented with sprigs of just-snipped basil, is a subtle masterpiece.
Nonvegans, don't despair. If you order salami, capicolla, pancetta, or prosciutto di parma on a pizza, be assured it will be as generously layered as avocado leaves on your crabgrass. If you're a fan of noncured meats as well, you'll want to try that silky prosciutto stuffed into pounded veal, then blanketed with mozzarella sauce and baked. The prosciutto gives the milder veal a salty little kick, while the sauce and cheese keep it from drying out.
Oddly enough, or perhaps thankfully, pastas do not dominate the menu. You can score some Bolognese sauce over penne, chicken and mushrooms tossed with handmade fettuccine, and handmade gnocchi mixed with mussels and clams, a refreshingly different version of the potato dumplings. But a side of spaghetti interwoven with that expertly balanced marinara comes with main courses. Thus, diners are actually freed up to order, say, one of the two fish dishes. Salmone alla Siciliana, a sautéed fillet napped with a pungent dressing made of sun-dried tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, black olives, capers, garlic, white wine, and olive oil, perfectly suits the palate that loves bold flavors. But if you're looking for something slightly more delicate with just as much satisfying aroma, the grouper Amalfi wins the prize. The sautéed fish was enhanced by an orange-cream sauce that emphasized the citrus and left the dairy to smooth its wake. A lovely dish, the grouper can be ordered with a side of pasta but was even better with the other option, an assortment of grilled squash and zucchini.
I'll probably never be able to start with anything at When in Rome other than the house salad of baby mixed greens and sprightly balsamic vinaigrette and the spicy onion-rosemary focaccia that's a complement. There is a handful, however, of expected relatives: fried mozzarella, fried calamari, an aptly Parmesan-rich caesar salad. I also can't see myself eating dessert too often unless the management wants to come up with something other than -- wouldn't you know? -- tiramisu (about a six on the espresso- ladyfinger scale), chocolate mousse, or crème caramel. What I can envision is cutting into the lovingly molded, 16-inch pizza, time and again (next time with the capricciosa, with mushrooms, prosciutto and egg, for the record). And maybe, just maybe, going on management's incentive, sewing up a ripped seam or two.
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