Folks from South Philly are, culinarily speaking, a strange lot. For one thing, they put Cheez Whiz on their steak sandwiches, and they don't hesitate to squirt an even cheaper Cheez Whiz-ish sauce onto French fries, hot dogs, pretzels — you name it. They also eat scrapple and refer to sandwiches as "hoagies." They call tomato sauce "gravy." God only knows the name they've given to the stuff poured over their Thanksgiving turkeys. Sheesh.
DiBono's Italian Café in North Miami Beach serves "Philly-style cuisine" — or, more specifically, "South Philly-style Italian," invented by immigrants from Italy as they filed into that neighborhood during the late 1800s. DiBono's has a much shorter history: It was known as Louie's Brick Oven from its opening in 2006 until this past March, when owners Debbie and Lou DiBono renamed the place to coincide with a revamping of the menu. Seems that Louie's would get packed on those specially noted nights when Debbie served up dishes prepared from Lou's Italian family recipes. The mission of newly monikered DiBono's is to focus more on such cooking.
They should have kept it Louie's Brick Oven, because the charred thin-crust pizzas that come from that wood-and-coal-burning hearth are still way better than anything else proffered. Plus "Louie's Brick Oven" is more evocative of the type of unassuming South Philly neighborhood joint the DiBonos are attempting to emulate. Décor-wise they've done well. The 120-seat dining room is darkly dressed in walls alternating from distressed brick to black wood paneling, spruced-up wood floors, black leather booths, a lengthy open kitchen in back, and too many flat-screen TV sets; three are situated over a full-service granite bar that sweeps the right side of the altogether cozy room.
DiBono's Italian Caf
DiBono's Italian Caf: 15979 Biscayne Blvd., North Miami Beach; 305-948-3330. Lunch Tuesday through Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; dinner Wednesday through Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Tuesday and Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday.
Jimmy's Milan was also a cozy spot, one of the landmark Philly restaurants from which the DiBonos are borrowing. It closed some years back but is said to have been a favorite haunt of Jeffrey Chodorow — emperor of the China Grill empire and brother-in-law of Debbie DiBono. One of the new menu items here is Jimmy's Milan Salad: a chopped mélange of romaine lettuce, tomato, red onion, bacon, and hard-boiled egg. It brims with shrimp and is primped in "Jimmy's dressing." DiBono's rendition was tasty, even if the large, halved crustaceans ringing the perimeter were blandly poached and, like the other ingredients, not particularly crisp; and there was no egg; and the creamy dressing leads me to suspect Jimmy's last name is either Hellmann or Miracle Whip. It wasn't particularly large, either, particularly when you consider the $18 cost.
Diners start off with a basket of wonderfully wheaty homemade focaccia bread that can be dipped into a dish of olive oil flecked with salt and fresh herbs. Although pizzas have been relegated to the lunch page on the menu's flip side, many folks in the room were ordering them as starters before dinner or pairing pies with salad and wine as meals in themselves. That's smart either way. The crusts are delicate, the toppings numerous and creative — yet we ordered and rather enjoyed a regular pie with just sauce, cheese, and basil.
Other starters include chicken wings mildly wood-smoked in the oven along with a tangle of sweetly melted onions; and meatballs made from beef and stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella, and Parmesan cheeses, which, alas, they were out of. We did eventually get a garlic-marred meatball as one of three meat components in "rigatoni with Sunday gravy" — the other two being fennel-flecked Italian sausage and a pork spare rib thick with softly braised meat. The big problem here was a sweet-and-sour taste: "Sunday gravy" was a cloyingly sweet tomato sauce, and al dente tubes of rigatoni tasted sour — suggesting the pasta was old. According to the menu, it was to be "served with a side of ricotta," but that cheese never materialized. Neither was Parmesan offered, but we were brought a shaker of it upon request. In retrospect, I shoulda asked for Cheez Whiz.
"Wood-oven-baked ziti asparagus" also could have used a jolt of viscous orange liquid — or something. Although described on the menu as served "in a light imported Parmesan vodka cream sauce," the ziti had been baked in a pasty tomato sauce with Parmesan crumbs gratinéed on top. The pasta was dreadfully dry, but the more obvious annoyance was the complete absence of vodka cream sauce and asparagus (although there were three or four teeny green snippets of some indeterminate stems that might have once been associated with that vegetable). At $17, the ziti falls into the $13 to $20 range of most starters, salads, and pastas; main courses run $18 to $29. Prices wouldn't be bad if the food were better.
The description for eggplant rollatini reads, "stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella cheeses; it's the best you ever tasted." This is wrong on two counts. First, it was the worst I have ever tasted. Second, I am hoping the cooks substituted Gorgonzola for one of those cheeses, because the alternative is that the cheese was very, very bad. Overcooked spaghetti marinara on the side was saddled with a sauce just like the "Sunday gravy" — way sweet.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The staff is friendly and well versed in the welcoming department, but not especially detail-oriented. On neither visit were we told about nightly specials (that were written on a blackboard out of view of our table). On one occasion, the waiter did notify us of a lobster special that will run nightly for the foreseeable future: $17.99 for a one-and-a-quarter-pounder either steamed, grilled, or roasted in the brick oven (and served with asparagus and broccolini). That's a price you can't refuse, although as is true with most prices you can't refuse, you should. Although the lobster was roasted, it had all the nonflavor of one that is boiled — only much drier. The kitchen was out of both broccolini and asparagus, so we chose spinach with garlic. It came cold.
"My Tuscan lemon chicken" brought half of a juicy bird bathed in buttery sauce tarted via white wine and the titular citrus, with some peas scattered on the plate. "My" refers to Debbie ("because I make the sauce," she claims on the menu), yet although her name appears as part of various items (such as "tilapia alla Debbie"), and she is officially the chef, Debbie did not appear to be on the premises during our visits. I'm not certain who's in charge of setting prices, but the Tuscan half-bird is $19, while a whole "marinated oven-roasted chicken" is the same $19. I'm no mathematician, but the latter would seem to be twice as good a deal.
There are bargains aplenty on DiBono's reasonably marked-up wine list, which ranges from inexpensive supermarket selections to pricier reserves, but mostly features midlevel choices available by bottle, glass, and half or whole carafe. Cocktail, wine, and beer specials run from noon to 7 p.m. every weekday, and a mug of Miller Lite goes for 99 cents daily (that's cheaper than bottled water, and almost as strong). This is not at all a bad place for drinks, pizza, and perhaps some sports action on the big-screens.
A decent ricotta cheesecake, neither exceptionally light nor lemony, is the only dessert prepared on-site. Better were carrot, chocolate-cherry, and tiramisu cupcakes, which at least tasted fresh. Regular tiramisu was a flat, mass-produced puck of coffee-flavored mousse. Pass the Cheez Whiz!