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Cavalli Miami: Pretty, Tasty, and Pricey

Chef Stefano Mazzi and risotto Portofino
Chef Stefano Mazzi and risotto Portofino

It starts before you arrive: the low guttural hum of expensive Italian sports cars — vivid-yellow Lamborghinis, sleek black Maseratis, fire-engine-red Ferraris — idling out front at the valet stand.

Once you're inside, the opulence of Cavalli Miami Restaurant & Lounge only escalates.

Mismatched white and bright floral-clothed tables are adorned with glistening wine glasses and glamorous decorative plates from famed Italian designer Roberto Cavalli's home collection. Plush seats are covered in the designer's signature zebra and leopard prints. Dramatic framed photos of the designer, surrounded by models, hang on the walls.

The attention to detail is on par with a fully crewed yacht. The space is immaculate and visually stunning. In the early evening, black-clad servers (some of whom wear the designer's animal prints on the trim of black aprons and shirts emblazoned with his name) can be seen polishing wine glasses as well as the sparkling stainless-steel and glass doors with handles that bear Cavalli's initials.

The Florence-born designer has been an icon in the fashion world since 1970. His first collection included an array of printed leather gowns. Since his debut more than 40 years ago, Cavalli has gone on to build a luxury empire known for its loud but elegant prints and glamorous bohemian aesthetic.

His sexy garb has been donned on red carpets by celebrities ranging from Jennifer Lopez to British model Cara Delevingne. In fact, he recently released sketches of costume designs for Katy Perry's upcoming Prismatic World Tour.

Cavalli has been critical of fashion stateside — to him, all American women dress alike. But he's passionate about Miami. He was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "Now the city is hot," and he declared on his blog: "Miami is a great place! A crossroads of different cultures that come together in a unique combination of art, design, culture and joie de vivre... I love Miami!"

In 2003, the designer opened Cavalli Café in Milan (it was renovated and rebranded with Hollywood Entertainment Group in 2009). That same year, the Cavalli Club opened in Dubai. In June 2013, he opened Cavalli Caffè, next to his boutique, in Saint-Tropez. Miami's outpost opened just after Art Basel this past December. Next on the list are Las Vegas and London locations, in which Miami executive chef Stefano Mazzi will be heavily involved.

The restaurants are part of Cavalli's empire, which is reportedly worth about 450 million euros. "At Cavalli Miami, we like to think and take care of every small detail," says Stefano Melis, the CEO and founder. "We want our clients not to have a simple dinner, but to live a true Cavalli experience."

When I visited recently, an impossibly tall, willowy hostess in a short printed flare dress (that made her legs look longer and leaner than humanly possible) greeted my guest and me beside the hostess stand. In sky-high heels, she casually walked us to our table as if she were on a runway. Then she smiled and placed several corresponding zebra- and leopard-print menus in our hands.

One was the cocktail list. Developed by mixologist Lorenzo Cassano, it's full of cooling drinks ideal for sipping outdoors in hot weather. The South of Fifth ($16) is the restaurant's version of a margarita. With Avión Reposado tequila, agave, chili, lime, and a rim of paprika Himalayan salt, it's refreshing with a kick of spice. The Tre Eccellenze ($16) combines Cavalli Vodka, fresh ginger, lime, sage, and chili pepper with a splash of ginger ale. It's earthy and pungent at first, with a mellow finish.

After drinks, the meal began with a glass of Provençal rosé. Unfortunately, it was warm, a flaw that sommelier Matias Benjamin Vergara asserted is usually not the case. "Rosés are supposed to be chilled," he said. "Most people in Miami like white wines to be really cold, so we aim to accommodate. It could have been left on top of the ice."

Servers bustled around, filling water glasses and singing specials in Italian (or trying, at least) and elucidating recipes and ingredients in English.

Tuscany native and former Cavalli yacht chef Stefano Mazzi heads the kitchen. He churns out a wide range of fare inspired by his homeland, such as Tuscan wild boar ravioli, house-made spaghetti, and lamb osso buco. It's all lighter and cleaner than the heaping portions and thick red sauces that most Americans have come to expect of Italian food. It's also rather expensive. Though most items are under $20, they're served à la carte, so the bill adds up quickly.

Taormina salad ($17) is one of the few insalate. It comprises fresh, peppery arugula, small segments of sweet lemon and Sicilian orange, slightly nutty and salty ricotta salata, and paper-thin slices of fennel. Dressed in a bright and fruity olive oil, the combination is light and refreshing, ideal for a Miami summer night.

Mediterranean octopus carpaccio ($17) is as stunning as it is delicious. Ultra-thin circles of milky, purple-rimmed flesh are topped with golden extra-virgin olive oil, specks of verdant parsley, chunks of red tomato, mild and sweet taggiasche olives, and large, briny Pantelleria capers. The result is delicate and vibrant.

Like many of the ingredients, the olive oil is imported from Tuscany.

Yellowfin tuna tartare ($22) is composed of a faultless circle of chopped magenta fish atop one long strand of green onion with a sprinkling of crushed nuts gracefully arranged around a large white plate. Creamy avocado sits between the ginger-marinated tuna and microgreens on the crown. It's visually appealing, but in terms of flavor combinations, it's nothing out of the ordinary.

Be sure to sample one of the pasta dishes. The rustic selections are the most impressive section of the menu. Agnolotti "Cavalli style" ($23) features handmade pockets of pasta stuffed with a velvety, honeyed combination of ricotta, mascarpone, and a bit of pear. It's tossed in a savory brown butter and sage sauce with crumbled Piedmont hazelnuts for a course that's homey yet elegant.

Risotto Portofino ($28) is another show-stealer. It's modeled after an old, renowned recipe from the namesake Italian fishing town. With Sicilian prawns, crisp asparagus, and light curry, the dish emits a fragrance that attracted our attention as soon as the server came near. The flavor was even more potent — the spice blend perfectly countered the creamy carnaroli rice and sweet shrimp.

The Chilean sea bass is a quintessential Italian dish — well-seasoned, simple, and fresh. The succulent fish is topped with a crunchy crust of herbs and chopped pistachios. It's served over a creamy and slightly tangy red pepper aioli, sided by a light vinaigrette, a couple of juicy artichoke hearts, and a near-bursting Roma tomato.

Our server suggested the chocolate bomboloni for dessert. Essentially the Italian version of a filled doughnut, it's stuffed with Nutella cream, rolled in sugar, and served with a ramekin of raspberry marmalade. It's a well-rounded mix of flavors that should be served warm; it arrived room temperature.

Service is inconsistent. On one visit, four courses were served over a span of nearly two hours by a somewhat aloof waiter who failed to read the specials. (As the evening wore on, other servers cogently recited the dishes of the day to tables of curvaceous blondes with wealthy-looking dates.) On a subsequent weekend trip, specials were read and the mostly Italian — and somewhat unfamiliar — wine list was explained.

No matter; the place is busy — even on weekdays.

Cavalli Miami is indicative of everything the great designer has come to represent. It's not just a look, but a lifestyle of luxury, a place to see and be seen. With décor intended to mimic Cavalli's villa in Tuscany, the space is akin to the inner sanctum of his empire. It's a chance to sit in on the rich and famous — at a luxury price.

Yellowfin tuna tartare

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