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I suppose I should have expected the question sooner or later. This was the third time I'd taken out a certain couple for dinner and the third time we found ourselves to be the only party in a restaurant I was about to review. "Is it us?" they wanted to know. "Or are people just not dining out anymore?"

Since we'd all taken showers before we left home, I'd have to say that yes, the number of patrons in our area restaurants does seem to have declined this past year, at least during weeknights. The floundering economy and September 11 have combined to greatly influence how and where we spend our money (i.e., we save dining out for weekend evenings and special occasions). Granted, I get to eat out on somebody else's dime; I'll admit that, even before I got this gig, I was one of those folks who tended to view cooking as something one does only on holidays like Christmas, when all the restaurants are closed anyway. That said, even I have begun to cut back. On the night or two that I don't have to go out, I've noticed myself debating whether to order in sushi or open a can of lentil soup. Guess what? Progresso wins beans down and saves me ten or twenty bucks in the process.

But that's only half the answer. The rest of it has to do with the fact that I like to review newer restaurants, those that have launched quietly, without fanfare and big public-relations firms hawking their wares, in neighborhoods that could use more quality-for-money establishments. Places like Massimo's Grill in Pembroke Pines, the kind of trattoria that is appealing to many but exotic to none. The kind of joint that could readily be a local crowd pleaser with dependable items like lasagna and veal piccata and a "junior menu" that offers "amazing fried mozzarella." The sort of eatery that already has something of a pedigree behind it, given that proprietor Massimo Mancuso and his son Manuel have experience running La Dolce Vita in Miami Beach.

Problem is, strip-mall storefronts in suburbia just aren't as noticeable as tourist-driven restaurants in Miami Beach, even those restaurants that are also nestled in strip malls. And quite frankly, this ain't the year to be depending upon your neighborhood to survive. While the chicken Parmesan was a perfectly good example of pounded poultry, breaded and baked with a pleasant marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese, home cooks can easily replicate it. And with all the ready-made items in the market today, including pasta you don't need to boil before baking and marinara sauce from top restaurants like Rao's, even lasagna isn't as labor-intensive as it once was.

In fact, getting dressed and into the car, driving to Massimo's, then waiting for your order to be delivered tableside may take even more time than making your own cannelloni. Especially when Massimo's version, which, though stuffed with ground veal and served in a tasty pink sauce, was left in the oven for too long and served with a burnt crust. Even I'm handy enough in the kitchen to ruin something.

When the neighbors are counting coins behind closed doors, restaurateurs need to attract customers from a much bigger area. To accomplish that, the décor and fare needs to rise above familiar eats like fried calamari and zucchini that, while tender inside, were a little soggy outside and seemed a paltry portion. Massimo's is attempting to do just that by featuring an attractive dining room with sepia-toned prints reflecting the walls behind them and other appetizer items like mushrooms stuffed with a mousse of Norwegian fresh salmon or steamed calamari tossed with greens and a citrus vinaigrette. But the place has a little work to do before it reaches beyond neighborhood status.



In some instances, an inventive spirit grabbed our attention -- before losing it in the execution. For instance, a starter of "mini Parmigiana," eggplant baked with tomato sauce, bufala mozzarella from Salerno, Parmesan cheese and basil reportedly picked from Massimo's home garden, sounded intriguing. But the rather dense timbale of overcooked eggplant and mellow mozzarella was overwhelmed by a too-tangy tomato sauce and the assertive notes provided by the basil and Parmesan cheese.

Preparation seemed more thoughtful with a pasta dish, rigatoncini di grano saraceno con straccetti di pollo e zafferano. More than just a mouthful of words, the short pieces of tubular pasta and silky, creamy sauce boasted a balanced saffron flavor and hue, and the chicken pieces were succulent and free of fat, bones, and skin. But as much as we enjoyed it, we questioned whether the rigatoncini were indeed homemade, as the menu billed, since they lacked a certain pliability that I associate with fresh-made pasta.

We also loved the mustard-brandy flavor of a main course, medaglione di maiale, two pork medallions that had been marinated and grilled. Unfortunately, while the pork was delightfully juicy, the meat was tough and fibrous, displaying poor quality. Even if it means a jump in customer cost, Massimo's needs to invest in a better grade of meat. No doubt, the so-called "French swordfish" could also use a more discerning eye -- or nose. While napped in a nicely tart sauce made of white wine, lemon, butter, garlic, and shallots, the fish itself was a dry steak that exuded a little too much aroma for my taste.

Our waiter was extremely enthusiastic about the homemade desserts, including a ricotta cheesecake and a tiramisu. No surprises there, right? In fact, we were a little astonished by the tiramisu, which was served rather untraditionally in a glass and tasted more like a pudding. The flavors were good, the espresso hinting rather than dominating, but the texture was a bit too soft for our liking.



We were also a bit puzzled by the sole California vintage, a Dunnewood Chardonnay, on the otherwise Italian wine list. We also questioned why the management would choose to list Dom Perignon for $225 a bottle when a Pio Cesare Cortese di Gavi for $35 and a Caparzo Rosso di Montalcino for $39.50 top out the white and red lists. If you're looking for bubbles, go with the sole Prosecco instead, the Galaxa Villa Sandi for a mere $24.50 -- that's a savings of $200.

If I lived in Pembroke Pines, no doubt Massimo's would be the eatery to which I'd take my kids or grab a salad-and-pasta meal before a movie. The décor and prices are indeed attractive, and the kitchen has good intentions. I hope the neighborhood responds; conversely, I'd like to see the sophistication and quality edge out the standards and make the restaurant a real destination point. Otherwise, Massimo's faces a future that could include the words no mas.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick