By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
Everybody loves Danny DeVito. As Louie De Palma on Taxi, he was hairier, scarier, but just as cute as Knut the polar bear. In most of his films, too, DeVito comes across as a likable rascal, a diminutive Everyman with a conniving dark side — which we laugh at because we recognize it in ourselves. Because of his estimable acting skills, we don't think of the man as extremely wealthy. But he is, and as such probably spends his time with other rich folk, like his partners in the new DeVito South Beach: financier Michael Brauser and Palm Beach restaurateur David Manero. Nothing wrong with birds of a feather flocking together. All I'm saying is that Danny, David, Michael, and their Hollywood pals can afford to take a seat at the handsome new Ocean Drive chop house and fork over $190 for an eight-ounce Kobe rib eye. Judging by the dearth of empty seats during our visits, so can plenty of other "VIPs and high-end clientele," which is how Brauser describes their desired demographic. For the less moneyed, a more viable option might be the new, moderately priced Vivi Ristorante nearby.
Two things became apparent shortly after we were seated upstairs in the two-story house-turned-eatery (formerly Joia restaurant). First is the comeliness of the dining rooms, primped Forties-style with brick walls, marble-top tables, softly glowing Venetian chandeliers, and plush white leatherette seating. An open kitchen downstairs adds a pinch of action, while the upstairs provides a quieter, more intimate environment. The cozy outdoor porch can't be beat for people-watching on the Drive, though it's still a bit of a sticky proposition this time of year.
Second is how poorly designed the space is. Just navigating up the narrow stairway to your seat is an adventure, as waiters and bus people, carrying mammoth trays piled with plates of food, use the same steps. My advice: Duck. Another clumsy configuration is the way seats are crammed so closely together that when two waiters work simultaneously at adjacent tables, one of them inevitably gets boxed in like an immovable chess piece until the other is finished. In order to fill two glasses of water properly, the waiter poured one, left to walk around a couple of tables, and then returned to the other side to pour the other. Hard to believe this layout was planned by restaurant professionals.
DeVito, who is new to the business, does get some things right. For instance, management resisted the easy temptation to get cute with the wine menu — like, say, labeling blush vintages "War of the Rosés." The impressively extensive list, heavy in bottles from Italy and California, must have more pages to it than the script for Death to Smoochy. Don't bother looking for bargains.
Same goes for the raw bar, but what you will find are effervescently fresh specimens of the sea, including half a dozen East and West Coast oysters on the half shell; Florida lobster and jumbo lump crab cocktail; and a carpaccio of Sardinian bluefin tuna garnished with bay scallops, Meyer lemon, and olive oil. Petrossian "Imperial Special Reserve" caviar is offered, too, but the price for this, as with various other items on the menu, is listed as AQ — which I presume stands for Ask Quietly.
Some customers choose to customize their own salumi and formaggio board. Choices include the familiar prosciutto di parma, coppa, soppressata, and the not-so-known finocchiona, a Tuscan salami speckled with fennel. Mozzarella, Taleggio, Pecorino, and Parmigiana are the cheeses, each item $7 and squired by truffled honey, amarene cherries, and crostini. But the temptation for charcuterie is undercut by a complimentary and generous predinner serving of thinly sliced soppressata, chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano, fried zucchini slices, and cherry peppers stuffed with herbed bread crumbs. All are laid out rustically on a wooden board, which is brought to the table with a basket of puffy popovers possessing eggy centers zestfully flecked with herbs. You will not leave here hungry.
That's the point. DeVito has been quoted as saying the fare here (except Kobe steaks, caviar, and such) is like the Italian food he used to eat in his hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey — a place where people are known to get up from the table with a full belly. There is a homespun, family-style authenticity to some of the cuisine, but what would his old South Jersey friends say about paying $20 for a meatball appetizer? Not much, probably, because their mouths would be stuffed with bites from soft, light meat mellowed with soaked breading, capped with whipped ricotta cheese, and plunked into a spicy, fire-engine-red sauce made with San Marzano tomatoes. Then again, once they saw that the three humongous meatballs, if each were halved, could easily satisfy six diners, there would be no quibbling over price, either.
A bountiful salad containing crisp calamari rings, chopped mixed greens, diced vegetables, cherry tomatoes, partially raw white beans, and pine nuts is so ambitious a composition as to require two dressings: creamy garlic and truffled balsamic glaze. As with much of the food here, it was more Cheesecake Factory than traditional Italian, but the contrasting flavors fused unexpectedly well. We weren't nearly as happy with a starter of zucchini blossoms, one of the daintiest flowers in the gastronomic garden. The delicate orange/yellow petals were piped with a gray ricotta filling and then mercilessly crushed under the weight of a thickly battered fried crust.