On most nights, Miami's South Beach area is a cacophonous blend of chattering voices from 10,000 sidewalk strollers, a rumbling from scores of automobiles locked in a bumper to bumper crawl down every major street and the pulsing beat of dozens of restaurant stereo systems blasting out the latest Latin hits and popular songs. On the hub of Ocean Drive at The Hotel Breakwater, the crowds and cars come to a virtual halt once an hour during the long evening minuet. The music blares even louder, and suddenly, Alex Fox, adorned in the white linen of a Latin padron, and his gorgeous sidekick, Lisa, prance through a 30-minute show of gypsy music and acrobatic dancing among the tables and on top of the outdoor bar of i Paparazzi, one of the beach's most venerable institutions, which has outlasted scores of its less fortunate competitors.
The scene, as it were, is under the sharp eye of "Arturo," a long-haired majordomo of the strip, who as often as not has a cigar clamped between his teeth. He soothes the frustrated diners-to-be waiting on the restaurant's steps for a table, seats the celebrities in places they appreciate, or can be appreciated from, and keeps the entire place hopping, recommending dishes from the restaurant's mostly Italian menu.
It would be a stretch to say that the food is the reason to go to i Paparazzi. But it is quite good, prepared with a light touch by the chef, Vittorio Lozzi. Cold appetizers include an excellent Caprese salad with mozzarella and tomatoes and basil and a standard prosciutto and melon. One outstanding hot appetizer is a mixed plate of fried calamari and zucchini, and both the bruschetta and focaccia are redolent with the excellent produce from South Florida's great truck farming industry. In general, it makes sense to stick to the basics here. But pasta specials such as Agnolotti Aurora (a homemade pasta stuffed with spinach and ricotta in a pink cream sauce) and the Penne Malafemmina (tube pasta tossed with capers, tomatoes, black olives and basil) are both excellent.
Main courses that are worth considering include all the shrimp dishes, especially the shrimp scampi, and the less complicated veal dishes such as the veal marsala. The wines also are fairly simple but run the gamut of standard Italian wines, with the big names in Chianti and Piedmonte.
But ultimately, the reason to come to i Paparazzi is for the scene on the verandah. If you think you're not a people-watcher, come anyway, demand a seat on the verandah from Arturo and settle in for a couple of hours of good food and, on any weekend night, the endless parade of suntanned tourists and gliterati wanna-bes. The verandah is Arturo's smoking emporium as well. Even in the depths of Florida's monsoon season, part of the verandah is under an awning or the overhang from the hotel's second floor, and it makes for a perfect smoking place. Arturo has cigars for sale in the restaurant, the selection of which is always changing. He's a cigar maven who searches out whatever is available locally, and he loves to offer new cigar brands to his cigar smoking patrons. Ask him, and you'll get the royal treatment.
I Paparazzi, owned by Fabian and Maryanne Basabe, may not be the hottest new restaurant on South Beach, nor does it necessarily have the latest celebrity big-name chef in the kitchen. But the food is earthy and simple with lots of appeal, the cigars are always outstanding and the scene is like nowhere else on the face of the earth. It's worth the trip.
The Breakwater Hotel
940 Ocean Drive
Phone: (305) 531-3500; fax: (305) 532-9491
Lunch: $15 to $20 per person; dinner $30 to $40, without wine