An Oasis of Ordinary
Sugo is a new Italian restaurant situated inside Sanctuary, a recently opened spa/salon/boutique hotel on James Avenue in South Beach. With Casa Tua, Blue Door, and Nobu nearby, this neighborhood is becoming something of an epicenter of epicurean cool. Sugo owner Tommy Billante might seem like the new kid on the block, but he's no stranger to this scene, having helped kick-start the SoBe resurrection years ago with his dancing-on-the-tables Mezzanotte on Washington Avenue; he still orchestrates the successful Bella Luna and Carpaccio restaurants.
Sugo strikes the proper South Beach pose, from the all-white, oasislike exterior to the sleekly modern 85-seat dining room within. It's a gorgeously designed space; bright tangerine banquettes contribute bursts of color against what appears to be a grooved metallic wall but is actually intricate woodwork. Waiters and tables are neatly dressed in white, the former with black ties. The ceiling is low.
The restaurant was humming during our visits, as was the handsome bar/lounge area on the other side of the entrance, both swelling with well-heeled patrons seemingly airlifted from Bal Harbour. Being familiar with suave manager Carlo Cabrese puts many old-timers at ease in this new venue, and the Carpaccio-style Italian cuisine should make them feel even more at home. Carpaccio in fact is a signature dish here and definitely a recommended way to start things off: Choose from three versions, beef wrapped around arugula and parmigiano, tuna stuffed with soy-splashed avocado and shrimp, or swordfish that sumptuously enfolds delicate crabmeat. Another light option for the smoldering summer would have been "Insalata Sugo" -- an invigorating blend of tomatoes, cucumbers, fennel, celery, and chunks of parmigiano cheese -- but by our second visit it had been plucked from the menu.
The rest of the appetizers are for the most part hearty Italian dishes: clams baked with bread crumbs, oysters with lobster and shrimp; peppers stuffed with veal and vegetables, portobello mushrooms with crab. Calamari were fried in an overly salty and voluminous breading and purportedly plated with fried eggplant and shrimp, but the crustaceans were unapologetically omitted. "Homemade meatballs" turned out to be a monstrously sized mound of meat, really a basil-flecked meatloaf served with a dollop of fresh ricotta cheese. This is way too weighty for a starter, and closer in spirit to truck-stop fare than the Canyon Ranch cuisine you might expect from a restaurant within a spa -- but it was mighty tasty.
A main course of broiled Dover sole might qualify as spa cuisine, especially with its accompaniment of plain steamed green beans (which our waiter said would be sautéed spinach). A side of "butter lemon sauce" didn't seem to contain many calories either, producing a pucker and appearing dairy-free. The sole was flawlessly filleted tableside -- for those seated at the table next to us, that is. Our waiter, apparently a novice, performed the task in a fumbling fashion. The delicately fleshed Dover was ultimately cleared of bones but was just too fishy; the diner at that adjacent table left hers practically untouched. At $34.95, the product should be pristine. No such qualms with a similarly priced platter of fresh, slender slices of grilled salmon, tuna, and swordfish, along with a succulent lobster tail. Fava beans underneath the seafood were laced with pleasantly salty snippets of prosciutto, but a promised tomato gratin was absent from the plate.
Striped bass, described as being cooked "in parchment paper" with mussels, clams, leeks, ginger, lemon, and white wine, is actually steamed in aluminum foil, which does the trick, but only in the way rayon substitutes for silk. A pleasurably plump chicken breast came attired with a whole wardrobe of taste accessories: rolled with fontina cheese, prosciutto, and olive purée; pooled in white wine sauce; and sided by buttery polenta gratin. The kitchen is likewise deft with veal chops, offered either grilled, pounded and breaded, or as scaloppine, and topped with various garnishes. That dexterity disappeared, however, when it came to dried nuggets of stewed veal ragout tossed with thick triangular shingles of homemade malfatti pasta. A minuscule amount of tomato sauce clung like paint to the veal pieces, not nearly enough to moisten the monotonous meat nor to help separate the layers of pasta that stuck together like pasty sheets of wallpaper. Sugo has since solved that problem by substituting the more practicable pappardelle.
Pasta dishes at Carpaccio have always been commendable, so it was surprising that linguine with clams and crabmeat also proved disappointing. When our waiter offered a choice between red or white clam sauce, we opted for the latter, but there really wasn't any white sauce; the pasta was merely slicked with olive oil and flecked with large chunks of practically raw garlic. The littlenecks were tender in their shells, the sweet lumps of crabmeat lost in the tangle of noodles.
Not all of the waiters here are food savvy, but service is strong and there are enough workers on the floor to attend to diners' needs in a prompt, polite, and professional fashion.
Desserts tread the familiar terrain of tiramisu, ricotta cheesecake, and profiteroles. Ripe berries lushly topped a strawberry tart, but custard in the middle was too sugary, and the chocolate-painted shell nearly unshatterable. A napoleon proved to be a lazy reworking of the classic -- instead of crisp rectangular mille-feuilles layered with pastry cream and drizzled with vanilla and chocolate fondant icing, this was an airy square of fluffy puff pastry stuffed with flavored whipped cream. Desserts are $10.95; this place sure has the South Beach prices down pat.
As I surveyed the packed room, it occurred to me that maybe Nobu, Blue Door, and Casa Tua are too esoteric for the Carpaccio crowd, while Sugo offers a soothing sanctuary in which patrons can enjoy their paper-thin slice of South Beach. If, for all of its fine-dining pretense, this is just a middling, midrange Italian restaurant that charges way more than it should, well, SoBe it.
Postscript: Shortly after our visits, a new head chef, fresh from Genoa, came in to resuscitate Sugo's cuisine; apparently we weren't the only ones unimpressed.
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