He had a couple of things going for him. He got a good deal from Schu, who was pulling up stakes suddenly to take a job managing a hotel in the Keys. Gatto had also run two successful, moderately priced Italian restaurants in North Miami, Bella Donna and Bella Blu, both the kind of easygoing neighborhood trattorias that attracted a loyal following of locals. He had his girlfriend and partner, Natalia Cea, to run the front of the house and help out in the kitchen. And while he'd been born and raised in Buenos Aires, his Italian grandfather had loved to cook, and he had practically cut his teeth on hard salami. Now, more than two years after he took over the place from Schu, it looks like Gatto just may succeed.
I wish the place were near my house, because Scopa is everything a neighborhood restaurant should be. It's big enough, with a dozen tables inside and a handful out, to provide some elbow room and privacy without sacrificing cozy warmth. The walls painted earthy Mediterranean oranges and yellows complement polished flagstone floors; white tablecloths and low-hanging lamps set off hand-painted Italian china that is charming and festive for being mismatched. Lights are low, music soft, the atmosphere serene. You could be in the home of somebody with taste and a flair for comfort. The night we visited, one big table was being wined and dined like family; clearly, they were beloved regulars.
Right from the start, we faced a challenge: We were four women on a diet, tantamount to executable treason in an Italian restaurant. One of us dumped her lean-cuisine resolutions the minute she spotted Scopa's homemade gnocchi alla vodka ($16.95). Nobody, she claimed, makes gnocchi like her aunts, who used to stage daylong gnocchi marathons, rolling out little potato balls by the dozens on the kitchen table.
The rest of us were going to have to pass on the inexpensive and tempting pastas, all priced at $12.50 to $16.50: the fettuccini carbonara with pancetta, cream, and onions; rigatoni di Capri laced with smoked mozzarella and radicchio; lasagna Bolognese; spaghetti with sausage and meatballs (it turned out they'd run out of meatballs anyway). Sigh. Another dieter fell off the wagon with a crash when we heard the house specialties: It wouldn't be fair not to sample the homemade cannelloni stuffed with crab meat, shrimp, and calamari. The rest of us ordered specials too: chicken breasts cooked in cherry wine and served with sliced strawberries ($16.95) and a grilled pork chop with portabellos and pan wine sauce ($20.50).
But we had a long row to hoe before we got to the entrées. A great bowl of carrot cream soup ($6) was set before us with four spoons, as was a cold antipasto plate for two ($13). Redolent of carrots sautéed with onions in olive oil, blended to a silky consistency and thickened with heavy cream, this was a soothing introduction to what, it was becoming increasingly apparent, was not going to be a low-fat meal. A handful of grated Reggiano stirred in at the last moment gave the soup a sassy little bit of piquancy. Bliss. The salami, dry sausages, and prosciutto, a tangy trio of antipasti, were foiled with a pliant round of mozzarella, the clove-like aromas of shredded basil, grilled red peppers, and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
We rearranged our pretty plates and sent away the dreaded breadbasket (crusty homemade Italian) to accommodate an appetizer of carpaccio di manzo ($9) and a special of shiitake mushrooms sautéed with wilted spinach ($7). Sliced paper thin as it should be, the fillet's cold, deep-crimson circles were enhanced by lemon, piney slivers of rosemary, and flavorful bursts of little capers. It was missing the parmesan advertised on the menu, but many a carpaccio has been ruined by too much cheese; this had a unique balance of flavors, alternating subtle with assertive. It was one of the better carpaccios I've been served in a long time. Someone had slipped and spilled too much salt into the sautéed shiitake mushrooms with spinach, which otherwise would have been very good.
My chicken entrée was a surprise. There were two boneless breasts tenderly baked in sweet cherry wine and garnished with fat slices of musky strawberries. The effect was ephemeral, slightly tart, a little sweet, like a dessert wine that pleases without cloying or demanding too much. Our homemade cannelloni was another rousing success. Dainty sheets of egg pasta rolled around a seafood medley were seasoned with a perky tomato cream sauce and festooned with a sprig of basil. The pork chop was nicely cooked, touched with rosemary, and served with a wine reduction that drew out the earthy flavors of the portabellos -- on this plate, we split 50-50: Some of us found this dish too mildly flavored; others termed it gracious and mellow. And our gnocchi expert took a couple of bites of her dime-sized potato dumplings sauced with tomato alla vodka and announced that she was impressed -- they were light, fluffy as clouds fallen in the land of Lilliput, though a bit heavy on the salt. The rest of us helped her clean her plate, a transgressive thrill. This was food lovingly prepared with the deft, personal touches that make a meal expressive and memorable.
There were no leftovers. We'd tasted many dishes, but they'd been cooked with such finesse that we didn't feel stuffed. It must have been some sixth sense on the kitchen's part that brought us a dish of big, ripe strawberries, dipped in white chocolate and served with freshly whipped cream, after our dinner plates had been cleared. We were offered coffee but no dessert, which obviously was fine by us; the strawberries were exactly right. We'll go back for some of Gatto's zabaglione, tiramisu, or tartufo (all $6.50) after we've dropped five pounds. We'll think of it as a reward for our admirable restraint.