Fresh and True Italian
When summer comes to South Florida, the restaurant scene gears down so abruptly, and so dramatically, that its eerie. Personally I havent made a reservation since Memorial Day. Even at some of South Beachs most in-demand hot spots -- places where it had previously been impossible to procure a dinner reservation except for 6:00 p.m. (which, in my opinion, is breakfast time) or after 10:30 -- weekend walk-ins have been no problem.
Not having to make reservations is convenient, of course, when one reviews restaurants anonymously. Its not easy to come up, twice every week, with different fake names that are plausible as well as easily spellable by maitre ds of all nationalities. As I realized on one occasion when I got treated unusually well by servers who nevertheless seemed completely confused, Jennifer Lopez is just not a convincing option for some of us. Convenience aside, though, its unsettling when a place that should be packed is so empty at 10:00 p.m. on a Friday that your tablemate suddenly says, Hey ... why are we whispering like were in a funeral parlor?
Where we were was Vita, an eatery that diners definitely want to keep alive. Miami has a multitude of Italian eateries, many of which deserve to die, as most diners whove spent any time in Italy agree. Vita, on the other hand, delivers a dining experience that is authentically -- if not traditionally -- Italian. The industrial-chic interior (featuring polished concrete floors, exposed support columns, and banquettes upholstered with blue-and-white-striped mattresses) will not evoke memories of that homey little Tuscan trattoria. But the inventive yet simple, superfresh food might.
Case in point: il tuo tricolore. The stacked starter was basically a Caprese salad of extra virgin olive oil-dressed buffalo mozzarella, grape tomatoes, and basil, beefed up by an added bed of avocado. I couldnt stifle a yawn when a dining companion ordered this item. Caprese salad has got to be the most frequently encountered item on Italian restaurant menus next to tiramisu, and like the latter, is never bad but seldom good. So its boring.
Vitas was wonderful. And it wasnt even the unusual ingredient that made the standard combination so transcendent. The avocado slices were indeed beautifully buttery, due to perfect ripeness. But the tomatoes too tasted like theyd fallen directly from the vine, deep red and bursting with flavor, onto our plate. The buffalo mozzarella was impeccably fresh, as is normal in the home where the bufali roam. (The milk from which mozzarella bufala is made comes from Italys cowlike water buffalo, not our wild Wild West beasts.) While its easy enough to find imported Italian bufala here, good bufalas another story, since this subtle cheeses charm deteriorates quickly after production. Vitas delicate dairy-rich balls -- soft yet springy, without the mushiness mozzarella develops during normal air transit time -- must have been teleported in.
Fiori di zucchine ripiene is a seasonal starter, and early summer, while not high season for humans, is when zucchini flowers form. Dont blow your chance. Even in Italy the fragile flowers are often overcome by heavy breading outside, and starch-laden stuffing. Vitas batter adhered lightly, and the ricotta inside was airy, more similar to whipped cream than to a farmer cheese.
Tartare di tonno, tossed with onion and avocado, reminded me of a classic front-runner racehorse: quick start, slow finish. A strikingly cilantro-spiked lemon vinaigrette, which gave the diced yellowfin tuna chunks a taste quite different than standard sesame oil dressings, made the dish seem an initial winner. But about halfway through, the tartare became tedious. The problem was that the avocado was mashed, which made the dish seem less like a clean tartare and more like fish-enhanced guacamole. A bed of avocado slices, like that in the tricolore, would have enabled diners to revive flagging interest levels by alternating bites of tuna and veg.
No matter. An overeager busser whisked the plate off the table when it was only two-thirds eaten, anyway. But this glitch was the exception, not the rule. Otherwise, service on two visits was attentive rather than rushed.
Among entrées, strozzapreti romagnoli allo Stracchino e salmone was an excellent, if puzzling, plate of pasta. When ordering strozzapreti in Emilia-Romagna, Ive actually never been sure what would arrive at the table. Sometimes the priest stranglers were ricotta/spinach dumplings, similar to gnocchi. Other times, they were roughly tubular, like loosely twisted penne. Vitas pasta was a third type, resembling Venetian bigoli -- thick, hollow spaghetti. A creamy sauce of Stracchino cheese (think mascarpone, but heftier), studded with subtly smoked Norwegian salmon and fresh asparagus, was a lovely counterpoint to the hearty, appealingly elastic noodles.
If the indoor area seems a bit too fashionable for some nights, theres an extensive and very festive-feeling patio out back. And Vitas got the pizza to make the meal a party. Frankly my tables overall enjoyment level could have been raised by a few electronic bug zappers to divert the veritable army of mosquitoes that dined on us as we dined. But our tartufo pizza bianche couldnt possibly have been improved. Ive had Cadillac-level American pies at Spris and Piola. Vitas more streamlined superthin crust, topped with mozzarella plus a luxe assortment of porcini mushroom chunks and exquisitely earthy truffle slices, was a Maserati. While an astonishing $24 tag also, admittedly, made the experience feel more akin to financing a car than purchasing a pie, it was worth every last lira.
1906 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 305-538-7855. Open daily, 7:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.
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