"Just like being in Italy." That's what people who have never been to Italy often say about their favorite Italian-American restaurants, inevitably the sort that serve huge platters of pasta topped with gallons of red sauce and mounds of melted mozzarella. I wonder what the reaction is when these poor schmucks actually find themselves in Italy and are fed fresh, light, sanely portioned cuisine. Fratelli Lyon, a Design District newcomer, serves fare that is really, honestly, literally just like being in Italy. Heck, many of the products here come from the boot, including olive oil, salumi, Italian DOP cheeses, heirloom legumes, and boutique wines. And goods not shipped from overseas are equally virtuous: sustainable seafood, organically grown produce, grass-fed beef, airy loaves of home-baked ciabatta bread, and fresh pastas made in-house. Even the water is flush with integrity; an in-house filtration system produces still and sparkling waters that are served in reusable one-liter glass bottles. This means no disposable bottled water is sold — a principled environmental stand that owner Ken Lyon is no doubt paying for by way of lost revenue.
Lyon, whom locals might recall from his early-Nineties Lincoln Road gourmet shop Lyon Frères, deserves kudos for putting all of this together. Chef Brian Morales, too, gets a respectful tip of the toque for so deftly orchestrating a menu of regional cuisine that stretches from Friuli and Piedmont in the north to Sicily, Sardinia, and Campania in the south. The bill of fare is split in two, the left side of the page offering cold antipasti, salads, and some two dozen salumi and formaggi than can be divvied up in different ways. You can order them individually (most under $10), as a quintet of vegetable or fish antipasti ($25), a trio of either salumi or formaggi ($16), or an esplosione di antipasti (which says it's for two or more people but looks large enough for the two to be Dom DeLuise and Francis Ford Coppola). We tried an unlisted combo recommended by our waiter: chef's choice of three vegetable antipasti, two meats, and two cheeses. This translated to a sweet caponata of eggplant, raisins, and pine nuts; lemon-and-herb-marinated wild mushrooms; an invigorating salad of fresh fava beans, small white Umbrian purgatoria beans, haricot verts, and shaved pecorino Romano, all lightly caressed with olive oil; air-dried beef from Uruguay (bresaola) and finocchiona, thin slices of fennel-flecked dry-cured salumi (from the States); and Asiago and Gorgonzola cheeses, the former Venetian, the latter from Lombardi. This is quite a robust selection, and at $16 an unbeatable deal.
There are 50 or 60 wines on a list culled from boutique Italian vintners. Try one from the highly touted traditionalist Giuseppe Quintarelli; a good entry level would be the young, simple red Primofiore. Because the selection is exclusively Italian, no sherry, port, or champagne is served, although a number of sparkling wines are offered — as are sparkling sodas forged from the in-house carbonated water and fortified with flavors such as Meyer lemon, blood orange, and Illy espresso. A liter bottle of plain sparkling is $3.50, plus another buck and a half per scintillating soda.
4141 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-572-2901. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Saturday noon to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Salads saunter from the classic vitello tonnato to a delicate rendering of thinly shaved fennel, celery, and shaved Parmesan, kissed with a mist of lemon and olive oil. A few pizzas are also proffered, but we breaded up instead by way of three elongated slices of toast thinly applied with glistening chicken liver purée and crisped leaves of sage — a potentially top tapa for midafternoon.
The right side of the menu offers first courses of soups and pastas — the former featuring a tomato purée thickened with bread and spiked with leeks, as well as pasta, fagioli e farro: a smooth, thick purgatorio bean purée fluffed with farro grain and flecked with pieces of ham from the hock. That's a hearty meal-in-a-bowl, but save room for superb pastas such as garganelli alla carbonara, whose ribbed tubes are tossed with crisp nubs of pancetta and lightly swathed in buttery sauce.
Eight choices for second course are divided equally into meats and seafoods. Standing out almost as much as the savory flavoring is the value each dish brings. Two moist, meaty slices of calf's liver capped with softly sautéed onions come sided by steamed Swiss chard and halved fingerling potatoes — for $18. Grilled duck breast was even more impressive: Long, lean slices of the bird were draped over a hefty square of grilled polenta with a surprise center of dark duck meat; a side of steamed cauliflower came alongside — all for $24 (prices top out at $28). And a whole roasted baby chicken looked awfully good going by ($18).
The menu lists three key components to great Italian food: "Use the best ingredients available, keep the cooking very simple, and add lots of olive oil." Actually, the third element reads "lots of love," but the oil is more easily discerned in many of the offerings — none more so than in a nightly special of North Atlantic cod, the stout wet white wedge of fish seeped in potent, fruity olive notes and served atop rustic lentil stew dotted with a meticulously diced brunoise of vegetables.
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The décor is industrial chic. Contemporary furniture, plates, flatware, and accessories are compliments of the Driade furniture showroom in which Fratelli is located. Chairs are of varying styles, some more comfortable than others (the sharply squared, hard plastic chairs are more welcoming than they look). But on our first visit, we were seated in the lobby section, a rather cold makeshift space not nearly as intimate as the interior. When I cooked at the Russian Tea Room years ago, such socially undesirable seating was referred to as Siberia; here, I suppose, it would be Sardinia.
Not everything is flawless. Take the uniforms: sloppy gray cotton polo shirts over blue jeans of varying styles and degrees of wear — especially frumpy-looking in the context of such sleek surroundings. And on our first trip, we suffered through an incompetent waiter, who described the food inaccurately and barely made it to our table after the ordering was done. Backup was scant too; the hostess had to come by to clear plates. The waiter also neglected to tell us about a bistecca special for two, which we discovered when customers seated adjacent to us ordered one. "Damn, that looks good!" I said, envy dripping from my voice like blood from the beef. But other waiters appeared to be on the ball that night, and subsequent visits brought solidly professional service.
No tiramisu? No ricotta cheesecake? No key lime pie or molten chocolate cake? What sort of Italian restaurant is this? One that charges "market price" for fruit tart of the day, something I've not seen before. It turns out the version crafted from nectarines was $10; the price of nectarines is more volatile these days than I had suspected. It was a 10-spot well spent; the circle of pastry dough was thinly layered with vanilla pastry cream and adorned with thin slices of the fruit — plus a couple of plump raspberries. For a mere $6, you can also get a quartet of cigar-size cannolis, distinguishable from others around town not only because of an inclusion of raisins and chocolate, but also because of the freshly baked crusty cylinders rather than the premade stuff that after sitting in kitchens for months has all the appeal of old, fried egg-roll skins.
The only problem with dining at a restaurant as gratifying as Fratelli Lyon is that afterward you are left with the bitter feeling that other places have been ripping you off. Perhaps if the proprietors of said establishments, in between whining about hard economic times, would pay Fratelli a visit and see people lining up to get in on a Monday night, they might gain incentive to offer honest cuisine at a good value as well. This probably won't happen, but at least Lyon has joined our shortlist of restaurateurs with integrity. Plus, we'll always have Italy.