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Restaurant Reviews

Remembrance of Things Pasta

You know the story. French author Marcel Proust is having tea one day. He dips a piece of cookie — a sugary, scalloped confection called a madeleine — into a spoonful of brew. The tea-cookie emanates molecules of scent. Proust tastes; he swallows. Suddenly, he's there, a small child in his aunt Léonie's sunlit bedroom. She offers him a piece of her madeleine soaked in a tisane of lime-blossom.

"After the people are dead," Proust wrote later, "after the things are broken and scattered... the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls... bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory."

Proust must have been right — the memory-taste connection explains our implacable, emotion-rich cravings. It's the reason we'll gleefully open the can of manufactured cranberry sauce, wolf down the White Castle burger, demand chicken soup for a cold, compare every meatball unfavorably to Mama's. Imagine operating a restaurant, having to contend with all this! Under the circumstances, any restaurant meal is doomed to imperfection. No matter how artful, it can only approximate our memory of the sublime.

I've had very few dinners out that I thought were nearly perfect from beginning to end, but I did have one recently — at Café Sapori — and it began with the exquisite taste memory generated by a lushly flavored slice of focaccia. I used to eat focaccia just like this, baked at a tiny Italian grocery in London. I routinely walked three miles across the city and back for the sea-salty, yeasty, olive-oily bliss of it, and I'd never tasted anything like it again until last week. The second I had a hunk of this stuff on my tongue, I remembered the complicated, fusty scents of that little shop — floury sweet smell of freshly made tomato tagliatelle and cheese ravioli, pungent smokiness of salamis hung from the ceiling, faintly ammoniac sulfurs of ripened cheeses — the gritty, lemon-colored scent from giant wheels of parmesan. All my nostalgias for authentic Italian food, the taste of my first freedoms, my young heart in love, had condensed into this one tiny pinch of bread.

A perfect meal, it goes without saying, should start well. This one had. And truly, my expectations for Café Sapori couldn't have been lower. I knew that the place, situated just over the Southern Boulevard bridge from Palm Beach, relied heavily on the island's rich stock to keep its tables booked (Sapori is in the space formerly occupied by Jo's, another favorite of the smart set; before that, it was hoarding gold in another incarnation — as a bank). Palm Beachers are as weird about their food as they are about their fashion, paying big bucks for mediocre meals, quaffing Cokes with their lemon sole, ordering prime steaks well done, playing head games with the help — all while dressed from head to toe in, say, hues of salmon. Even worse, the owner and chef, Francesco Blanco and Fabrizio Giorgi, had come from Bice on Worth Avenue, where both food and service are frankly abysmal. The menu at Sapori, I'd heard, was Italian (yawn) inflected with Japanese (a few sushi-style rolls) and a bit of tapas (huh?). Early reviews in the dailies, when the place opened in February, had pegged it as a moderately priced and relatively casual neighborhood joint with food that was good but not stellar.

Wrong on both counts: Prices have almost doubled on some items in the past six months and been well padded on others — lobster ravioli has leaped from $25 to $29, and the penne à la vodka ("a great bargain!" crowed one review) is gone entirely. I suspect the management thought desperate measures were called for to discourage the riffraff. Or maybe they just needed to generate the income to pay their enormous staff. As for the food, it's excellent in every way and just goes to show what could have been done at Bice all these years if the management had only given half a shit.

You can't help but compare them — menu, clientele, and atmosphere are so similar. But where Bice's staff is snotty, Sapori's is warm and unfailingly precise. When we stopped for a breather halfway through our salmon, we were asked if the dish was satisfactory. It was, very. And so was the feeling of being attended to without obsequiousness or flattery but with honest compassion. In this beautiful mellow space (high, bare-wood ceiling, candle-lit patio, profusions of flowers), over a little tapas plate of cold roasted peppers with anchovies, it's very hard not to feel at least a little bit loved.

The ladies and gentlemen who haunt this place are of a type — they travel in packs, emitting the faint green rustle of freshly minted cash. Their designer jeans (size 0 or 2) cost $450; they are putting their plastic surgeons' kids through law school. The figure-conscious ladies always order salad as a starter (I suspect the sushi rolls are designed as bait for them too), a real shame, since they're missing out on delightful tapas like the warm chickpea cake mixed with goat cheese and topped with sautéed mushrooms ($9) that we ecstatically scarfed down, feeling the elastic of our size 10 pants relax. They miss the mini rice balls ($9) too, subtly laced with mozzarella and parmesan and holding a tiny dab of meat sauce in their center (the presentation on both of these, on white plates, was attractive and delicate, never overwrought).

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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