By Simone Zarmati Diament
When Gerardo (Gerry) Cea opened an Italian trattoria 19 years ago with roughly 20-seats and a tiny kitchen manned by his father Arturo, it became an instant hit. The Miami Beach neighborhood of 71st and Harding had not seen anything like it. Lines started forming on the then poorly-lit sidewalk and one could see Gerry cajoling the waiting customers with complimentary glasses of wine and bruschetta, occasionally even playing some music to make the wait more like a party. It looks like the waiting paid off because not only the little trattoria could make its customers happy — even though the only payment accepted was cash — but it attracted more and more people eager to feast on the large portion of fresh homemade pastas with delicious sauces and abundant meats and seafood .
Today, they take credit cards, there’s a large bar and the four rooms of the 140-seat café are lined with wood-panels hung with pictures of clients and celebrities. While the fresh pasta is still handmade daily by a family-member it is no longer in the state-of-the-art kitchen. “The pasta flour clogged the A/C that we have installed over every station,” explains Gerry Cea who remembers Papa Arturo and Mama Carla tribulations in the very hot original kitchen with no A/C at all. “A cousin of mine prepares on demand it in a separate kitchen with good refrigeration,” he explains.
Hardship paid off. The din of voices is as high as in the 20-seat space. The lines are still snaking around the block, but instead of house wine, bellinis quaff thirst and impatience. There is now a maître d’ and professional waiters where Gerry and his brothers used to be. The menu has evolved to please local tastes and those of fans who flock in from out of town like Matt Damon (Chicken limone and gnocchi formaggi) and Michael Jordan (crab ravioletti ) among other celebrities.
But Café Prima Pasta is more of a hands-on family operation than ever: since the family tightened the ties with their long lost cousins from Calabria, the tables now offer the family’s olive oil which will probably be on sale in the near future. While regulars return for signature dishes such as farfalle con polpette (fresh bowtie pasta with Mama Carla’s meatballs), crabmeat-filled ravioletti in creamy lobster sauce, and vittello piccata, sautéed with lemon, white wine, and capers, the menu offers a wide range of appetizers ($9.95 - $14.95).
They are all fresh and tasty, made with quality ingredients, from the antipasto mixto with thinly sliced Parma prosciutto, cold-cuts, cheeses, olives and roasted vegetables and carpaccio (beef and salmon) to the delicious and super-light melanzana parmigiana – slices of eggplant baked with marinara sauce and mozzarella — and Buffala and Parma, a large serving of creamy mozzarella and sweet prosciutto. There is also salmon Tokyo, an Asian-styled pan-seared salmon slices with soy sauce and sesame seeds for those who hanker for other flavors, but I would stick to the tried and true.
The menu had a long list of pastas ($16.95 to $19.95), both fresh and dry, all cooked to perfection with great sauces; from the fiery linguini Puttanesca and the mild gnocchi formaggi – a fave of Matt Damon — to stuffed thin pockets of silky pastas like Michael Jordan’s best pick, the crab ravioletti in a creamy lobster sauce. Our favorite was the fiocchi rapera stuffed with cheese and pear and topped with prosciutto and creamy truffle sauce. Inspired by a recent trip to Italy, this delicately sweet and salty dish seems to be the favorite of the moment at Prima Pasta. Another pasta dish, black linguine seafood, has the depth, flavor and character of squid ink and of all the seafood inside it.
Meat and seafood entrees ($16.95 - $23.95)
Orders are brought in platters and are huge. All meat and seafood entrees are good and served with a choice of mixed veggies, penne marinara or roasted potatoes. The menu lists the traditional chicken dishes: limone – sautéed with lemon, white wine and basil, caprese – with fresh tomatoes and Bufala mozzarella, marsala – sautéed with mushrooms, and parmigiana – breaded, topped with marinara and mozzarella and baked; and veal dishes like piccata and Portobello.
The menu continues with seafood: shrimp Cosanostra over spinach and roasted potatoes; salmon Francese with lemon and white wine; salmon alla Grappa with grapes, sundried tomatoes and balsamic reduction; a branzino Livornese baked with tomatoes, capers and olives and branzino alla Caccia with herbs, fennel and roasted cherry tomatoes.
And what about desserts? The Ceas being Argentine cannot end a meal without a delicious flan with caramel sauce, but their Italian roots demand tiramisù, a fluffy, drunken concoction topped with creamy mascarpone. The list of gelatos and other sweet endings goes on; and in the best Italian trattoria tradition, diners are served ice cold house lemoncello and little chocolates at the end.
At Café Prima Pasta, the early bird limited menu special has become an institution. Those with a tighter budget can still dine in style daily from 5 to 6 p.m. and on Sundays from 4 to 6 p.m. at 50% off!