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By Bill Citara
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Getting your money's worth when dining out was important long before the big, bad banks huffed and puffed and blew our economy down. Now it is deemed even more so. Or is it? Certainly anyone walking into Cecconi's (chuh-COH-neez), an Italian restaurant in the new Soho Beach House, would find the idea that Americans have become more cautious spenders preposterous: The place is as pricey as a Venetian vacation, yet consistently crowded.
That Cecconi's ain't cheap shouldn't surprise. The place is housed in a tony private club that debuted in London in 1993 (it has since expanded to multiple locations in England and one each in West Hollywood, Berlin, and New York). Cecconi's is the in-house restaurant for three of the properties, including this newest one that opened on Collins Avenue in October. Finding reasonable pricing at places such as this one is as likely as discovering a pearl in your oyster — and Cecconi's doesn't even serve oysters. On the other hand, lack of value is one of the few flaws we found.
The 150-seat indoor/outdoor space looks like a billion bucks (a million bucks just doesn't buy awe anymore). On one visit, we dined under the stars; the next time, under the retractable roof. A 14-seat bar and an open kitchen bookend the foliated patio dining room boasting natural wooden tables on a diagonally striped tile floor. It is supposed to be reminiscent of a garden veranda in Venice. But hanging chandeliers made from filaments in jars, along with tiny white Christmas bulbs wrapped around trees, give it the look of a rustic winter wonderland — which is to say very distinctive from other South Florida venues. Cecconi's is at once elegant and comfortable.
4385 Collins Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33140
Region: Mid/North Beach
Chef Sergio Sigala spent his childhood in the Italian Alps town of Boario Terme and the past ten years in the Italian kitchen of Casa Tua. His cooking philosophy at Cecconi's is the same as it was at the prior engagement, which is to say similar to that found in Italian villages like the one he hails from: a very clean, basic compilation of fresh, quality ingredients. Sigala's idea of dressing a fish is to add olive oil and marjoram. When he really gets down, some tomatoes, olives, basil, a sliver or two of celery, and lemon juice might be added — which is how the roasted branzino is prepared. The crisped skin crowning the mild white-fleshed fillet is smartly seasoned, but a small crop of sautéed spinach below is bland — no gust of garlic, sprightly squeeze of lemon, or seductive sprinkle of nutmeg. Sigala's deftly light hand can occasionally prove a bit too subtle.
The other seafood options are salmon with lemon, chili, and roasted fennel; seared black cod with butternut squash and wild mushrooms; and roasted scallops with potato, leeks, and black truffle. Prices are $28 to $38. Nightly specials are set according to what's in season; these days, that means white truffles. For $96, you can get a generous shaving atop your risotto. We went instead with nearly transparent wisps of black truffle shavings upon mashed potatoes, an accompaniment to poulet rouge — modeled after France's Label Rouge birds, raised on all-grain diets and three times as expensive as commercial varieties. Cecconi's version exemplifies the breed's laudable characteristics: The half-chicken came with moist, tender meat; deep poultry flavor; and thin, crisp skin partly owed to genetics and partly to getting licked by flames from a wood-burning oven. The mashed potatoes possessed so smooth a texture that they reminded some table guests of the instant, powdered stuff; the natural spud taste proved otherwise, helped along substantially by the aforementioned fungus. At $25, this plate does deliver value.
As does a generously portioned, $28 lamb rack braised in the wood oven and served in such a rich, dark, and thick demi-glace that it might as well be called lamb syrup. The meat flavor was also lamb-intense, as well as fall-off-the-bone soft. Baby carrots, potatoes, and sweet potatoes roasted alongside were tastily glazed with the same sauce. Other meats are veal osso buco ($38), a ten-ounce veal chop with green beans and pancetta; and two steaks: a New York strip with arugula and Parmesan, and filet mignon with wild mushrooms (each $42).
Diners are started with crunchy bread sticks followed by a basket of assorted sliced breads with deliciously fruity olive oil alongside. Olive oil is the lifeblood of Cecconi's; different varieties are used according to how they match with the foods being cooked. The wine list is also presented around this time — a 230-bottle compilation mostly focused on regions of Italy. Numerous by-the-glass options are available, starting at $11, but don't bother looking for bargains among the bottles.
Maybe securing a glass of wine would have been easier than getting water. We were thirsty after waiting several minutes for service. One of my guests flagged a passing hostess and requested the humble beverage. It never came, but a few minutes later, a busperson finally did. He set us up with menus, water, and bread sticks. Then a waiter stopped by and took it from there. He was from Venice, which lent not only an authentic accent but also European efficiency. The bulk of our meal was thus served in highly professional fashion — until it wasn't. The Venetian was evidently sent home for the night (it was getting late), but neither he nor anyone else let us know. The baton was left on the floor, and no one checked on us. On another occasion, we were served smoothly and seamlessly by the same waiter, but again we were left waiting — this time our server wasn't sent home, but deluged by requests from the swelling crowd.
The meal began with a bowl of piping-hot Tuscan bean soup, whose coarse purée of cannellini beans was garnished with herbs, a few macaroni shells, and diced pancetta. A trio of fat octopus tentacles arrived softly charred and tossed with capers, olives, juicy cherry tomatoes, lemon juice, and olive oil. The starter that best showcases Sigala's let-the-food-do-the-talking approach comes via a chopped salad of "fall Swank Farms vegetables." The composition boasted a mélange of local, seasonal vegetables — including red and yellow beets, green beans, asparagus, zucchini, tomatoes, and corn — and whispers of walnut oil and sherry vinegar like dabs of perfume on a beauty. Each fresh, natural bite validated all the ink spilled over the superiority of farm-to-table dining.
Other appetizers ($14 to $20) include tuna or beef tartare, snapper carpaccio, and a choice among five pizzas — including one with goat cheese and black truffle that goes for $40 (pies otherwise cost $18 to $24). I went with the simplest: warm cubes of barely melted buffalo mozzarella and basil leaves atop uncomplicated tomato sauce and a crackly, thin crust.
Pastas, made in-house, range from pappardelle Bolognese to gnocchi with Gorgonzola to the signature spaghetti with lobster. I was set to cast my lot with the last dish but also leaned toward "plin" agnolotti with butter, sage, and Parmesan. The waiter surprisingly steered me toward the agnolotti, whose $16 "small" portion was half the price of the lobster. No regrets: Each petite parcel of pasta delivered a delicately sumptuous mix of minced veal, beef, and pork.
Cecconi's cuisine is based on tradition rather than any need to be inventive. That said, side dishes, at $10 a pop, are prosaic: mashed potatoes; roasted rosemary potatoes; sautéed spinach; cherry tomatoes and red onion; grilled vegetables; arugula and Parmesan; and zucchini fritti. The zucchini were nonetheless fantastic — thin sticks lightly battered and crisped, like French fries on happy gas.
Desserts are also limited in vision. The shortlist is topped by tiramisu (forgivable for an Italian restaurant) and key lime pie (barely forgivable as an obligatory nugget tossed to tourists). A cupcake-size cylinder of ricotta cheesecake was light and creamy, with blueberry compote on the side. A tasty wedge of yogurt and apple "cake" was more like an apple tart with a thin layer of cake within, sided by zabaione gelato trumpeting notes of intensely fresh vanilla. Desserts are $12 (excepting a postdinner Italian cheese course, with date-almond crackers and truffle honey, for $15).
We don't quibble with Cecconi's pricing; as implied, there are reasons. What seems missing are the usual consolatory extras, be it an amuse-bouche at the start, petits fours at the end, or notable service in between. Still, if you relish dining on flavorful Italian food in a breezily romantic setting, Cecconi's won't disappoint.
View our Cecconi's Miami Beach slide show.