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A Labor of Love for Food and People
Delicious Food, Feisty Atmosphere,
an unexpected treat, and a victory of a kind in the heart of Coral Gables
By Simone Zarmati Diament
This ain't Jack Dempsey's Restaurant, nor are we in New York City on Broadway between 49th & 50th. But judging by the number of people lining up on the sidewalk, a glass of wine in hand, in front of 150 Giralda Ave. in Coral Gables, Randazzo's Little Italy is quickly becoming an institution as popular as the Boxing Legend's was.
The mystique is fueled by the raving media with titles such as: "The battle for who serves up the tastiest meatballs in New York is getting spicier," referring to Marc Randazzo - a former boxer who won the WBC "World Boxing Council" Champion Light Welterweight Title, "a hamburger above Light Weight," explains his brother-in-law Jose, who is also the manager of the restaurant - supplanting Rocco DiSpirito in the TV Series "Restaurant"as well as in real life, as chef of Rocco's in New York.
Mr. Randazzo's Champion belt is proudly displayed at the entrance of Randazzo's Little Italy, next to photos and paintings of his victories on the ring, and his wife Elena greets the throngs of diners with a happy smile and a warm feeling.
Once inside, there's a sense of excitement, like a boisterous family party. Families with babies and grandparents in tow make you a feel like dining in a set of the Godfather, under garlands of luminous grapes hanging low over tables with checkered tablecloths.
Plasma screens run videos of The Godfather and of The Restaurant show. Music in the background plays from Frank Sinatra and Jazz to O Sole Mio. The affable waiters in snappy uniforms, black with white tie and embroidered logo designed by Elena, must have nerves of steel to navigate between the crowded tables and be able to deftly catch a bottle of wine in mid-flight from the table to the floor… while carrying platters of piping hot "Chicago-style Italian Soul Food."
Plenty of good vibes, good food and fun.
Born in a Sicilian family, Mr. Randazzo soaked in his Mom's and his Nonna's cooking in the family basement in Chicago's Little Italy, and he started emulating them, cooking up entire meals by the age of 12. By the time he retired from Boxing in 1997, he was feeding his family and friends on a regular basis at his home, until he was convinced by Coral Gables attorney Jim Ferraro, a friend of his father's, to open his own restaurant.
Weary of myths and legends, and having shunned Italian American food long ago, I still went to see for myself and taste. At first I was surprised by the atmosphere prevailing, and then by the food. Unlike your regular Italian American food flooded with red sauce, not only this was well prepared, it was very good!
In the kitchen, clad in an undershirt showing his bulging biceps, Mr. Randazzo - a gentle man with a sensitive face - prepares new stocks and sauces sometimes twice daily, for lunch and dinner. He needs to with all the people flocking in! Convivial, he likes to come out, pour himself a glass of wine, and stop to greet people and talk with friends from all walks of life.
Generous servings cooked to perfection
Out come generous dishes. The special of the day was a fork tender Pork Tenderloin sautéed with fennel seed, white wine, garlic, sea salt, fresh tomato and herbs, with a side sautéed broccoli, fragrant as it was tasty.
Pasta comes in oversized bowls. But no matter what kind you order: whether it is rigatoni, penne or linguini, they are cooked to perfection and the sauces never mask the taste of the pasta.
Mr. Randazzo admits to using the Cecco brand, but says it's all in the water. Rigatoni with vodka and prosciutto "Mancini" is richly coated in a light tomato, prosciutto and cream sauce and finished with a shot of vodka. Yet it is delicate and flavorful.
Spaghetti with Sunday Gravy is served with the famous meatballs that have won him access to TV and a position in NewYork. The meatballs are delicious, large, soft and moist with a slight touch of lemon to enhance a fresh tomato sauce topped by two big leaves of intensely green fresh basil. "It's beef, veal, pork, fresh herbs, green and yellow peppers… my Mom's recipe," shrugs modestly Mr. Randazzo.
Mr. Randazzo takes pride in making good food, without affectation
Every thing is freshly made and one can taste the ingredients: The Soup of the Day was a thick, hearty green pea and leek soup with potatoes, ham and smoky pancetta.
Randazzo salad -- the only salad boasts the menu -- is a plate full of lettuce, tomatoes, crunchy celery, warm and soft chick peas, warm cubes of sautéed provolone and gorgonzola cheese, olives, all sprinkled with fresh parsley and tossed with a light citrusy and refreshing dressing.
Seafood linguini is a huge well-balanced serving of seafood and pasta. Linguini al dente are entangled in a sea of tender calamari rings, fresh, plump mussels, flavorful little white clams seeped in a fresh marinara sauce made with garlic, herbs, fresh tomatoes and white wine. "All the food is really simple," says Mr. Randazzo. "It's all in how you brown the onion and the garlic, you got to be careful there not to let is burn, and the right type of olive oil."
The generous portions reflect the chef's pleasure in seeing people enjoy their food. The Chicken Milanese "Soprano" is pounded thin, breaded, fried golden and served with fresh arugula and Parmesan cheese. Then there's Chicken Parmesan Buoniconti that the menu describes as being like "breaded chicken pizza, you'll love it!"
It is hard to choose between the Shrimp Oreganata "Jimmy Hoffa" in a garlicky white wine and lemon sauce, and the Christmas Eve Snapper sautéed with tomatoes, olives, capers, basil and a splash of pinot griggio. So I ordered the fish of the day: a flaky, creamy-fleshed grouper, with a pale lemon sauce covered with capers. I thought it would be bland, but: Surprise! Everything about it was delicious! Even the roast potato wedges were delicious! And the steamed broccoli was just right to the fork!
Desserts are as abundant and as well made as the entrees
The Chicago cheesecake is a creamy wedge set over a thin crust, not too sweet, not too rich, with a faint hint of lemon rind. Even the Tiramisú, something I have given up eating long ago, was pregnant with rich coffee, moist and not too sweet either.
The Fondant chocolate cake was bittersweet and chocolaty good. And the cannoli, although a bit too thick-crusted, loaded with rich and delicately flavored ricotta and covered with pistachios. But what the heck, as the menu reads: "Shut up and eat a cannoli! It's 10,000 calories. So What! You ain't a model!"
This is a family affair. What the Randazzos have achieved here is as miraculous as winning a Championship title.