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Sitting on the front porch at Lorenzo in South Beach on a bright afternoon, a crew of reality TV stars bickers in French. They reek of cologne and spray-on tan. The leader, a stern man with slick hair and a crisp button-down shirt, looks like a portly Bruce Jenner. His wife, wearing white sunglasses and her brown hair gathered in a pink scrunchie, ignores the gawking bystanders.
There are more pressing matters to attend to at the moment — such as the fight that's about to break out for the cameras.
A dude in a silk blouse stands up, hollers at a brawny guy in a Miami Beach tank top, and then storms off-set. It makes for great television. But then a blond producer leaps out from behind the camera; she asks him to come back and redo a line or two.
"It's a fake French reality TV show," explains our friendly Canadian waitress, who doubles as our translator for the afternoon. "They are arguing about a restaurant they all own."
It's also just another regular day in South Beach.
Tony Mantuano, the James Beard Award-winning chef behind Lorenzo, is no stranger to show business. He was featured on season two of Bravo's Top Chef Masters. But he's perhaps better known for something else. Mantuano is Barack Obama's favorite chef. According to the New York Times, the president swoons over Mantuano's wood-roasted scallops, a dish served at his Chicago restaurant, Spiaggia — where the Obamas have celebrated several anniversaries, birthdays, and date nights.
Though his empire spans from the Windy City to his hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin, Lorenzo is Mantuano's first venture outside the Midwest. Located on the ground floor of the new Redbury Hotel, across from the fabled Raleigh, the restaurant boasts tables topped with slim bottles of Mantuano's private-label extra-virgin olive oil. At the square wooden bar, which is fringed by glass containers stuffed with citrus and herbs, it's always time for a glass of Italian wine.
So what if the red velvet curtains, white leather chairs, and brass sculptures look a bit gaudy. This is South Beach, where a little excess is never out of place.
The food here can be just as bold. Braised lamb ribs are glazed in a thick blend of pomegranate molasses, harissa, and aged balsamic vinegar. The meat's texture is fatty and sticky, beckoning to be eaten with your hands. Sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and served alongside mint-flecked cucumbers, it is lovely.
A vibrant, citrus-sloshed salad — laced with rock shrimp, avocado, and frisée — is equally pleasing. So are the wild Nigerian prawns, which are perfectly cooked and spiked with lemon and Calabrian chili. They might fare best as a special occasion meal: These four prawns will set you back $42.
There's also a homier side to Lorenzo. Spaghetti alla Nadia looks like something straight out of an old Italian trattoria. It's prepared much like Scott Conant's legendary red sauce spaghetti. Cooks at Lorenzo plunge parboiled pasta into a pan with San Marzano tomatoes and basil until the scarlet sauce seeps into each noodle. Sometimes the spaghetti can be undercooked — and al dente enough to stick to your teeth. But the flavors are comforting and pure. Like the pizzas, which are crowned with mushrooms, pancetta, and sausage, the flavors at Lorenzo evoke nostalgia — even in the unlikely place of a polished South Beach hotel.
The meatballs are an even better bet than the spaghetti. Blending ground beef oxtail, veal brisket, and pork shoulder beneath a spicy red purée, they might be the best balls in town. Ask for an extra serving of Zak the Baker's sourdough bread, which is served with oregano butter at the beginning of every meal. Use a hearty slice to sop up the crimson gravy.
"People go gaga for this mahi-mahi dip," our boyish waiter says on a recent Sunday evening. The appetizer, proffered alongside caperberries and wood-oven-baked crackers, is a nice bar snack. Order it from the servers in white shirts along with a few arancini — golden, deep-fried orbs of rice crammed with sweet corn and gooey mozzarella. The waiters here are personable and genuine — the kind you want to ask to sit down and share your dinner.
Finish the meal with scoops of gelato served in tiny tin bowls. Stick to conventional flavors such as espresso, chocolate, or wild berry. The pistachio-mint variety is overwhelmed by the fresh herb's sting. The others are as therapeutic as a marathon of your favorite show on a rainy Sunday night.
Lorenzo belongs to a particular breed of South Beach restaurant, imported by out-of-town James Beard Award-winning chefs. It draws quite the international crowd, including European reality TV stars. Who, by now, had finished their fake fight, exchanged a bevy of kisses, and downed their water. As they depart in shiny white Cadillac Escalades, our server shakes her head and disappears back into the kitchen.
This place is fine and pricey, and on the best nights, it also comes with a helluva show.