Could Be Betta

Could Be Betta

Miami-Dade's prime waterfront real estate seems marred by more mundane eateries than that of any other coastal resort in the world. And the bayside address that has housed the highest number of unfortunate dining establishments in the county's history just may be 1601 79th St. Cswy. Remember the Russian Fairy Tale? Didn't think so — it was a short read of a restaurant with an unhappy ending. You probably do recall Roger's American Grill, which didn't sink all that long ago. You probably recall it being something of a poor man's Houston's. Welcome to the latest washout, Barchetta on the Bay, a budget Italian joint that debuted here in early March.

The restaurant still looks a lot like Roger's, which is to say it still resembles Houston's, with brick facade, leathery booths, expansive open kitchen, and floor-to-ceiling windows that bestow a bewitching vista of Biscayne Bay. All for naught, really, because unless the weather is extreme, most everybody sits outside. There are even waterside banquettes — which you don't see every day — positioned beneath the same wooden roof as a sizable outdoor bar.

A starter of six shrimp savorily sautéed with cannellini beans, mushrooms, and tomatoes was greeted with nods of assent around the table, although at the time none of us suspected it would be the best dish we'd sample. The worst was another appetizer, cryptically called "spinach flan fontina cheese fondue." Translation: A small green dome of flan, pale in color and taste, cloaked in an indelicately cheesy white sauce. We expected it to be served hot, but it was on the cool side of room temperature, which led me to ask the waiter which it should be. "I don't know," he admitted with a sheepish grin. "I've never had it." In fairness, he was our back-up waiter, or translator if you will — our regular waiter wasn't well versed in English, and not because he was from Italy. Service was personable but hardly polished, as evidenced by plates from each course getting removed from the table only as the next set of dishes arrived.


Barchetta on the Bay

1601 79th St Cswy, North Bay Village; 305-861-2228. Open for lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.

Fresh predinner bread was softly textured, and a certain crunchlessness likewise defined, on separate occasions, starters of fried calamari and fried zucchini. Both arrived with "spicy marinara" that tasted like bland, canned tomatoes with the addition of sautéed onions and a little salt. A pair of fair crabcakes proved neither plump with plush lumps of crab nor overly bready with filler. In other words, like much of Barchetta's cuisine, neither here nor there. The remaining appetizers don't require a stove: bruschetta, beef carpaccio, marinated olives, mixed antipasti, slices of prosciutto draped over cantaloupe.

It's been said that the trouble with eating Italian food is five or six days later you're hungry again. No need for such concerns at Barchetta. Portions are not especially skimpy, but neither are they as prodigious as at traditional Italian-American restaurants. An entrée of lobster ravioli, priced at $18.50, came with just five pasta rounds filled with a fish-flavor lobster/crab mix and topped with "fresh plum tomatoes, vodka sauce" — the same lightly creamed marinara that moistened a side of penne "with pink sauce." In fact there are at least four different terms used for what I am fairly certain is the same tomato sauce, and that doesn't include a tomato broth that was to be part of a grouper special. The broth, of course, was red sauce, and a fairly thick one at that, which along with mixed olives, capers, and mushrooms, left one fishing for the fish flavor.

Not a whole lot of other fishing gets done around here. Although this setting would seem apropos for seafood, Barchetta's owners probably reason that the Crab House next door has already netted the market for middling fish dinners by the sea. So salmon, tuna, shrimp, and one special du jour are the sole seafood entrées served — and on a Sunday visit there was no tuna. There are, however, always lots of tomatoes on hand — seven of eight pastas are based on the fleshy red fruit. The one un-tomato, fettuccine all' ortolana, brought a stiffly executed, if vaguely satisfying, nest of eggy noodles padded with asparagus, mushrooms, half-moon slices of artichoke bottoms, pecorino cheese, a piddle of garlic, and a puddle of olive oil at the bottom of the bowl.

"Wild mushroom ragú with brandy sauce" turned out to be a colorful description for white mushrooms sautéed with a shot of the liquor, served over three skinny scaloppine of veal. Grilled New York steak was accurately described, but clumsy and unimpressive — ugly, chewy little squares of sliced meat laid down on the plate like a crooked smile. Non-pasta dishes come with choice of one of ten sides, such as the aforementioned penne with pink sauce; homemade but soggy french fries; and freshly steamed spinach. Only the penne was served warm enough.

A dark wedge of flourless, as well as densely airless, chocolate cake was sided by the sort of cheap vanilla ice cream that is fine for a $5 dessert, not a $9 one. A "napoleon" comprised of puff pastry circles messily layered with strawberries and a smidgeon of pastry cream appeared to have been assembled by young children working without parental supervision.

Prices seem reasonable, with pastas $14 to $19 — and nothing over $30 — and a short wine list that shines a light on inexpensive Chilean and Argentine bottles, many of which are also under $30. But most starters are $10 to $12, and desserts $8 to $10, so a bill for one, sans wine, drinks, or tip, could top $40. That's not an outrageous amount of money for dinner, but it's an outrageous amount of money for these dinners. Lunch prices are lower, which makes Barchetta a better bet at that time.

While dining here we witnessed dolphins leaping from the water, silhouetted by the sunset like on some hokey picture postcard. Such imagery makes Barchetta a place to seriously consider when you're desirous of scenic cocktails by the bay. If you're desirous of decent budget Italian food, however, it might be wiser to dine across the road at Oggi's.

1601 79th St Cswy, North Bay Village; 305-861-2228. Open for lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.


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