True to Their Word
The guy looming over our table would be scary if you met him in some pitch-black alley at 4 a.m. For one thing, he's big. Pitted face, great bushy brows. For another, he's holding something heavy in his hands. "Excuse me," he says. "My English. Is not so good."
Our host, Giancarlo Monegatti, takes a deep breath. "Tonight's specials," he booms. "First we have the homemade pasta. We have the ravioli with ricotta e spinachi." He tilts his tray, and we can see what he's pointing to: a round ravioli the size of a tea saucer with a huge hump in the middle.
This is a demented hockey puck, not a ravioli, I think.
Next up: "Ravioli with the porcini, mushrooms." These are three-by-three inch squares, lightly dusted with flour. "Ravioli with shrimp. Ravioli de caccia mista. "
He points: Each is a different shape, texture, color. "We have the gnocchi, homemade. We have the pappardelle, the vermicelli, the tagliatelle. All homemade." He's gesturing with a big, callused finger at carefully woven nests of pasta, in shades of vanilla, sage, rose. "We can put this one with cuttlefish and black ink sauce. Or truffle and porcini. Or maybe just a light simple tomato with basil. You like cream sauce? Pesto? Something with smoked salmon? Anything you want."
Our table of eight, stunned, exchanges can you believe this? glances. Our host inhales, puts down his tray, picks up another. It's brimming with fresh whole fish. "Sea bass. We put with some herbs, some butter. Wonderful. Trout. Fillet of sole. Salmon. Fresh octopus we cook in a white wine."
I've zoned out temporarily. The fish he's showing us look as if they'd swim off nonchalantly if you flipped them into a body of water. And I'm looking around the room. It's tiny. Sunday night, and other than our rowdy extended family, only two other couples are eating here. I don't get it.
A night out at Saporissimo feels slightly unreal. Here's this little Tuscan restaurant, a block or two south of swanky Mizner Park and its shoulder-to-shoulder Boca tourists. The restaurant is owned by a peripatetic husband and wife originally from the island of Elba (think Napoleon), with only a couple of beautiful, black-eyed Roman boys for help. As far as I can tell, few words have enshrined this place -- a Google search turned up one measly paragraph in the Herald last year about how owners Giancarlo and Anna Maria Monegatti had closed their Coral Gables restaurant and moved north.
Monegatti picks up another tray. "We have elk chop, just came today. Osso buco, very special, made with venison. Quails cooked in casserole with polenta. And we have wild duck."
He's finally finished. Beaming with satisfaction. Waiting for questions. I raise a hand tentatively -- "Do you have the rabbit cacciatore tonight?"
The man's expression literally wilts. "We are out of rabbit tonight," he says. His face is one big mask of lugubrious woe.
My brother kicks me under the table. "Nice work." I'm reminded of Vatel, the royal French chef who offed himself when the fish didn't arrive for the king's banquet. I don't think Giancarlo Monegatti would do anything that drastic, but his unhappiness at my perceived disappointment hangs in the air over our table, a sodden cloud. Then his face brightens. "We have beautiful rabbit sauce, for the papardelle!" he boasts.
The question I keep returning to all night, and for days afterward, recurs: How do they do this? Saporissimo (the word means something like "extremely delicious" in Italian) has enchanted me. I'm also enchanted by this hulking, beaming man, who grabs your hand for a vigorous shake and an introduction at the door. I'm enchanted by the menu -- from the octopus and celery salad with balsamic vinegar brought specially from Modena ($19.95), the Tuscan soup with farro ($7.95) or the ribolita with black kale and cannelini beans ($8.99) to the "oxtail recipe from Rome" ($22.95). And I'm enchanted by the ever-so-slightly threadbare, if thoroughly charming, décor. The enclosed porch we're sitting in looks like the shabby-chic rooms of a thousand little trattorias in every corner of Italy. It's clean, bright, and nondescript, except for a dozen framed articles about Signore and Signora Monegatti hung on the wall above us -- reviews of their last restaurant, Il Giramondo. Most enchanting is the feeling of being embraced, well taken care of, attended to, with genuine and bountiful generosity.
The Monegattis close to spend the month of July in Tuscany. By the time you read this, though, they should just about be back in Boca, turning on the lights and shaking out the tablecloths. Anna Maria will have brought back Tuscan oils, rare herbs, odorous porcini, and maybe smuggled in a salami or two. She'll have fired up the computer and ordered wild boar from Texas to sauce her gnocchi. She'll be restocking the refrigerator with pheasant and rabbit, and ordering her fish from Spain.
We started with bowls of zuppa di farro ($7.95), a classic Tuscan dish, made with the labor-intensive grain (we call it spelt) grown for centuries in the mountainous regions of Garfagnana. Simmered with borlotti beans, tomatoes, sage, rosemary, garlic, and basil, it becomes a hearty supper. Anna Maria, who does most of the cooking (Giancarlo says he only fillets the fish), has a lighter hand with her seasonings, particularly salt, than most chefs. Some of us found a few dishes, like this farro soup, too bland. I wasn't one of them -- I think salt is the unimaginative chef's seasoning of first resort. I doted on its dense, chewy textures and complex, herby broth.
We also tried a risotto croquette ($9.95). We all loved this crunchy appetizer -- al dente risotto stuffed with sharp mozzarella, dipped in bread crumbs, and quick-fried. Baked eggplant parmigiana with mozzarella and basil ($13.95) was excellent too -- slices of surpassingly lively eggplant submerged in a piquant fresh tomato sauce topped with a chiffonade of fresh basil. The beautiful Roman boys circled the table with bowls of fluffy parmigiano, cheerfully doling out great spoonfuls. We tore hunks of superb Tuscan bread and dipped them in bowls of herbed olive oil.
I wanted to applaud as we finished each course. The pastas arrived: tagliatelline al tartufo e funghi porcini (truffles and porcini). And those gorgeous squares of ravioli swollen with porcini mushrooms ($19.95) in a creamy pink tomato sauce, wafting scents of Earth and sun. The spaghetti ale vongole ($19.95), al dente, lightly tossed with fresh tomatoes, rimmed with plump clams in the shell. The pappardelle with wild boar sauce ($22.95), a fistful of slippery noodles coated in a medieval, almost black sauce with chunks of wine-marinated meat. And, just because Giancarlo wanted us to taste it, the pappardelle with wild rabbit "in salmi," ($22.95) a beyond-the-pale concoction of Barbera wine and bittersweet chocolate laced with grappa.
Plates were passed. We took a vote. The ravioli stuffed with porcini swept all the prizes. The judges were mixed on the spaghetti with clams -- not spicy enough for some of us -- it lacked kick but excelled in the delicacy of its fresh tomato sauce and the texture of the pasta. I adored the pale pieces of rabbit soaked in wine and chocolate and the heft of those homemade pappardelle, so I refused to share my bunny. It's probably treasonous to say it, but the wild boar sauce was reminiscent of a French beef bourguignon, except the meat had a slightly nutty flavor.
These recipes -- the boar, pheasant, and rabbit -- are ancient Tuscan traditions, which make them worth saving and savoring. What menus call "wild" game, like that served here, is almost always farm-raised now. It's generally grass-fed (grain feeding is kept to a minimum) without hormones or antibiotics. Its flavors are more nuanced and complicated than factory-raised poultry, pork, and beef. And it's almost always higher in protein and lower in fat and cholesterol. Lesson over.
Could we eat more? Um, yes? Veal piccata ($27.95) had been pounded thin and draped in an haute-couture sauce composed of truffles, sage, and Marsala. It was accessorized with an opulent slice of foie gras. This veal dish was the gustatory equivalent of the word abundance.
"Absolutely the best veal piccata I've ever tasted," my father announced, setting down his fork (this from a man, not given to superlatives, who's eaten veal dishes all over the world). A fillet of baked sea bass ($31.99), refined and wistful in its understated pool of lemon and butter, sprinkled with a few herbs, lightly salted -- was our table's chic and unrivaled diva. Another bottle of Chianti was poured into a wide-bottomed decanter. We sliced and shared pieces of sweet, thick elk chop with its slab of buttery polenta, sauced with foie gras and truffles ($39.95).
Those truffles. We had them in profusion at Saporissimo. They made an appearance in a homemade ravioli filled with exotic meat in porcini and truffle sauce ($10.99 for an appetizer) and in a plate of tagliatelline with truffles and porcini ($24.95). There's no mistaking the odor of these fungi -- people have compared it to gorgonzola cheese, even to burnt rubber -- but there's something almost primeval about it. It's a luscious, subterranean riddle: A truffle turns any dish it touches into an irresolvable mystery.
And then we were through. Almost. The Roman boys wheeled out a squeaking butler's cart of complimentary after-dinner liqueurs. We had Grappa and Vin Santo. Limoncello and Amaretto. Sambuca. And finally, dessert (all $6.95): A cannoli alla Siciliana dusted with cinnamon and force-fed a funnel of fresh whipped cream. A pastiera Napoletana, a traditional Easter cake made of cinnamon-scented ricotta cheese and milk-soaked wheat grain, larded with nuts and dried fruit, zesty with orange blossoms, citron, and candied orange peel. Plates of panna cotta, creamy egg custard tasting of burnt caramel and orange blossom water. A martini glass of zuppa Inglese -- homemade vanilla ice cream floating in a bitter, wine-dark sea of espresso and brandy. Each more shocking, more delirious, more delightful than the last.
Another glass of limoncello?
Well, OK, thanks...
As we left, the Roman boys brought long-stemmed roses for the ladies. Anna Maria emerged from the kitchen, untying her apron -- a dainty, ethereal blond next to her husband's dark bulk; the wild boar had married a gazelle. It was very late. The Monegattis didn't seem to mind. We raised our glasses to toast this extraordinary performance. And I was still baffled -- how in hell do they do it?
When they get back from Tuscany, I'll stop by for that rabbit cacciatora and ask them.
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