In Hallandale Beach, just before the Miami-Dade County line, the Little Italian Tavern is the crown prince of neighborhood restaurants. The 40-seat eatery fronts a trailer park and to some degree looks like a trailer itself, but it doesn't appear transient. Though it's been open only a couple of years, the joint has settled so comfortably into its surroundings it'd take another Andrew to dislodge it.
Long and narrow with a low roof, the restaurant features two tiny dining rooms separated by a hallway, along with a takeout counter and a busy kitchen. Tables, covered with Plexiglas (all the better to see the menus that are trapped beneath it), are close enough together to give folks a good, close view of your buttocks as you squeeze past -- not that many of the people who dine here, mostly regulars, actually care. Curtains on the small windows and paneling on the walls give the eatery a feel of the small-town diner, and waitresses who seem suspicious of, not to mention a little perplexed by, first-timers ordering more than one course -- let alone three -- cement that perception.
Owned by Juan and Diana Rubin, the Little Italian Tavern's motto seems to be, given the rhetoric printed on the front of the menu, that it's cheaper to sup at the restaurant than it is to eat at home. And if you order the house specialty, and only the house specialty, that's pretty much true. The Tavern offers spaghettini cooked al dente with a choice of 21 different sauces, ranging from eggplant with roasted tomatoes and black olives to walnuts with Parmesan and parsley to calamari with white wine and garlic. The bowl of spaghettini will run you $4.95 plus an additional amount, which depends on the sauce you select. Marinara's the cheapest, priced at a buck, and sherry-flavored lobster sauce is the priciest, at $4.25. Even so, for a hearty portion of pasta with lobster sauce, $9.20 seems like a steal. (If you want noodles other than spaghettini with one of these sauces, it could push you over the sawbuck mark with an additional dollar fee. Ask the server for the daily selection.)
The printed menu also lists a couple of thin-crust pizzas and a few pleasant crostini and focaccia sandwiches, which appeal most at lunch. But the real finds are generally the erasable kind, marked in chalk on the blackboard. Much more sophisticated in style than the printed menu items, these run from appetizers like the portobello pizzettes we consumed one night at dinner to main courses of roast boneless duck with rosemary and gnocchi, beef braised with leeks and endive, or veal stew with fresh vegetables. The pizzettes, mushroom caps stuffed with diced summer squash and zucchini and topped with mozzarella, had been broiled to a succulent juiciness, and they were the perfect precursor to a hearty bowl of pasta.
An artichoke special starter, a whole vegetable that had been steamed and presented naked, was equally light, designed for a summer evening. But the simple artichoke, served with a mediocre vinaigrette that tasted more like mayonnaise than anything else, was rather boring. The leaves, though tender, were flavored with nothing more exciting than tap water; steaming this vegetable with garlic and wine or dusting it with some Parmesan and bread crumbs would go a long way toward improving matters.
If you like to begin your meals with the salads posted on the written menu, share one. The tuna salad, for example, was utterly huge. Like salade Niçoise, the chopped romaine came laden with white tuna, green beans, white potatoes, and pungent olives. The addition of roasted peppers, an anchovy or two, and a tasty olive oil/basil vinaigrette gave the salad an Italian bent.
Or skip the greens altogether and go for the fried mozzarella, one of two hot appetizers that is a staple. (Fried calamari is the other.) The four triangles of mozzarella were deep-fried with a touch of garlic and presented oozing on a puddle of marinara. The mozzarella tasted like it had been topped with a little ricotta, giving it a softer feel, which compensated for the overly browned exterior of the cheese.
If the Little Italian Tavern suffers from any one fault, it's the overuse of garlic, particularly in the special main courses. Chunks of the pungent stuff floated in the marinara, the sauce we consumed on entrées ranging from spinach ravioli stuffed with ricotta to spaghetti with veal meatballs. We were disappointed in the green-hued ravioli, a commercial brand that lacked suppleness and had probably been frozen as long as Walt Disney, but were delighted by the moist veal meatballs, falling apart at the touch of a fork.
But the real vampire-killer was the rack of pork. Several pork loins had been roasted and dressed with so many cloves of garlic the kitchen staff must have somehow known I was pissed off at my husband that evening. A congealing brown sauce, overwhelmingly fragrant with rosemary, was another turnoff, and a side dish of something unidentifiably orange and pasty (carrots? sweet potatoes? Play-Doh?) was inedible.
The same accompaniment dressed the most successful main course, a salmon fillet. This was a lovely piece of fish, pan-fried and served on a gentle mattress of spring-fresh leaf spinach. The fish was perhaps the only course that wasn't overly large, which left us plenty of room for a nice hunk of tiramisu and a slightly stale cannoli.
Look to the blackboard again for a wine better than the house white or red. The Tavern offers for consumption several Italian and South American vintages priced in the low twenties, though they're perhaps not quite as much of a bargain as the carafe of vino for $11. Domestic beer at $2 and imported brews for $2.95 may be enough of an enticement for locals also to use this place as a happy hour haven.
In fact prices are so reasonable the restaurant doesn't honor checks or credit cards; it's the cash way or the highway -- literally, as this place sits near the newly renovated portion of South Federal Highway (which becomes Aventura Parkway about a mile down the road), and Andretti-like drivers are taking advantage of the new, smooth pavement. But we would advise stopping by the ATM before you settle in, lest you risk losing your spot in the restaurant's two-car parking lot. The Tavern also has a deal with its own neighbors, the Parkview Motel, to use its parking lot when spaces are available. But like tables at the Little Italian Tavern, a place homier than home and cheaper to boot, spots can be hard to come by.