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Washington Avenue, best known for its velvet roped nightclubs and trendy restaurants, is home to Escopazzo since 1993, when restaurateur Pino Bodoni first opened a little 10-table eatery. With its consistently high-quality and innovative menu, the charming atmosphere it has maintained in spite of its growth and the all-Italian wine list, Escopazzo is "a little bit crazy:" a rare gem in fickle South Beach
By Simone Zarmati Diament
Washington Avenue in South Beach, best known for its velvet roped nightclubs and trendy restaurants that last but the span of a sigh, is home to Escopazzo since 1993, when restaurateur Pino Bodoni first opened a little 10-table eatery. His mom was in the kitchen and he was at the front of the house. Everyone thought that he was, like the name of his restaurant, "a little bit crazy."
Today, Mamma Bodoni still makes tiramisù, and she helps out in the kitchen. But the restaurant now counts 95 tables and a back room with a romantic fountain. Walk through it, and you’ll find an unexpected wall of frescoes, an earthy tile floor which give ambiance, warmth and charm to the rooms and an ultra-modern temperature controlled cellar where Pino, who is also a sommelier, keeps his all-Italian wine stash, from the high end super Tuscans, Barolos and Barbarescos to fresh spumoni and unassuming regional varieties.
In the kitchen chef Giancarla Bodoni - Pino's wife - is keeping the flame alive and the menu on the edge with sophisticated dishes based on traditional recipes and distinctive daily specials. There are even a few raw items for the health conscious. Peeked by the offering of a raw degustation menu, we ordered a raw fennel soup. What a surprise! Ethereal and made creamy in a Vita Mix blender with the addition of pine nuts, the delicate anise taste of the fennel is tempered by little crunchy rock shrimp marinated in lemon and olive oil and brimming with the taste of the sea.
Chef Giancarla insists on keeping a healthy percentage of cutting edge raw food cuisine on her menu, including juices, soups and carpaccios, and vouches for the quality, purity and freshness of the mostly organic ingredients which you can taste in the entire menu.
Giancarla often zigzags between the white table cloth tables to talk to guests, bringing blond buoyancy and a bright smile to the dining area.
She’s been in charge of the kitchen for almost ten years now and has never ceased to serve an exquisite Asparagus flan with “fonduta” of Fontina cheese and sharp provola ($14), with deliciously crispy shiitake mushrooms and a fragrant white truffle butter; one of Pino’s creations and the only dish that’s been on the menu for 13 years.
Among the hot starters the gratineed New Zealand mussels with a ragout of baby artichokes, garlic, lemon essence and mint over crispy polenta sticks ($14) and the Hudson valley foie gras napoleon with homemade orange confiture and bitter sweet chocolate ($22) are not to be missed.
At Escopazzo, even carpaccio is different and loaded with charm: swordfish and Big Eye tuna loin carpaccio ($14) are paired with baby arugula and orange salad tossed with olive and walnut dressing. More of an entrée, the pepper-crusted and barely seared lamb topped with a crispy pistachio goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes beggars purse is drizzled with an intensely flavored Balsamic vinegar and makes for an unusually good hot first course($14).
For the raw food lovers there’s zucchini carpaccio with thin slices of zucchini with macadamia nut sauce and a citrus yellow bell pepper sauce ($12) and salads: sweet roasted golden beet salad with walnuts and Tuscan pecorino cheese ($13); or Fennel, endive, arugula and almond salad with pickled mango and dill citronette ($12). Under salads there’s also hefty plates of Buffala mozzarella salad with homemade bread croutons, olives, capers and grape tomatoes dusted with young fresh basil leaves ($12), and the typical Italian antipasto: thinly sliced nutty-tasting prosciutto di Parma with olives and marinated artichokes ($22)
Pastas and risotti
Pastas - fresh and dry - and risotti are hearty and innovative like the "casarecce" pasta with roasted organic root vegetables, Tuscan sheep's milk cheese and extra virgin olive oil ($22). Fresh pastas can be ordered as starter in reduced portions of freshly homemade pumpkin and amaretto ravioli; quail filled ravioli with asparagus, quail egg, roasting jus and drops of white truffle infused cream ($24) and agnolotti filled with basil mascarpone, served with crispy halibut and Ligurian extra virgin olive oil ($23).
The perfectly al dente risotto of the day was redolent of richly fragrant Asiago cheese and studded with green pistachios and baby fava beans.
Delightful main courses
Main courses beautifully presented and totally off the beaten track, are where the kitchen continues to shine:
Our fish dish was a crispy-skinned snapper over a braised fennel ragout. The fennel’s faint taste of anise was enhanced by a sweet shot of anise-tasting sambucca tempered with salty black olives, all topped with a panache of fennel leaves ($30). The meats: while there is stewed Colorado lamb shank “Roman Style” ($30) and Bell and Evans herb-rubbed roasted chicken with spiced pear, roasted organic root vegetables and gorgonzola sauce ($29), we opted for a delightfully moist pork tenderloin crusted with brown espresso beans and served with a rich Madeira reduction and little chunks of pleasantly bitter-tasting roasted parsnip and leeks ($30).
Desserts ($8 - $10) are country-like simple and delicious, including a lightly fried sfogliatella-crêpe folded into a triangle and filled with ricotta and pine , dusted with powdered sugar and served warm over a fresh strawberry coulis, or the deep chocolate cake with ice cream and zuppa inglesa, without forgetting Mamma Bodoni's legendary tiramisù.
With its consistently good, high-quality innovative menu, the intimate atmosphere it has maintained in spite of its growth, the impeccable service at the hands of a well-trained staff, and Pino’s extensive all-Italian wine list, Escopazzo is “a little bit crazy,” a rare gem strongly encrusted in fickle South Beach.