Everybody loves Danny DeVito. As Louie De Palma on Taxi, he was hairier, scarier, but just as cute as Knut the polar bear. In most of his films, too, DeVito comes across as a likable rascal, a diminutive Everyman with a conniving dark side — which we laugh at because we recognize it in ourselves. Because of his estimable acting skills, we don't think of the man as extremely wealthy. But he is, and as such probably spends his time with other rich folk, like his partners in the new DeVito South Beach: financier Michael Brauser and Palm Beach restaurateur David Manero. Nothing wrong with birds of a feather flocking together. All I'm saying is that Danny, David, Michael, and their Hollywood pals can afford to take a seat at the handsome new Ocean Drive chop house and fork over $190 for an eight-ounce Kobe rib eye. Judging by the dearth of empty seats during our visits, so can plenty of other "VIPs and high-end clientele," which is how Brauser describes their desired demographic. For the less moneyed, a more viable option might be the new, moderately priced Vivi Ristorante nearby.
Two things became apparent shortly after we were seated upstairs in the two-story house-turned-eatery (formerly Joia restaurant). First is the comeliness of the dining rooms, primped Forties-style with brick walls, marble-top tables, softly glowing Venetian chandeliers, and plush white leatherette seating. An open kitchen downstairs adds a pinch of action, while the upstairs provides a quieter, more intimate environment. The cozy outdoor porch can't be beat for people-watching on the Drive, though it's still a bit of a sticky proposition this time of year.
Second is how poorly designed the space is. Just navigating up the narrow stairway to your seat is an adventure, as waiters and bus people, carrying mammoth trays piled with plates of food, use the same steps. My advice: Duck. Another clumsy configuration is the way seats are crammed so closely together that when two waiters work simultaneously at adjacent tables, one of them inevitably gets boxed in like an immovable chess piece until the other is finished. In order to fill two glasses of water properly, the waiter poured one, left to walk around a couple of tables, and then returned to the other side to pour the other. Hard to believe this layout was planned by restaurant professionals.
DeVito, who is new to the business, does get some things right. For instance, management resisted the easy temptation to get cute with the wine menu — like, say, labeling blush vintages "War of the Rosés." The impressively extensive list, heavy in bottles from Italy and California, must have more pages to it than the script for Death to Smoochy. Don't bother looking for bargains.
Same goes for the raw bar, but what you will find are effervescently fresh specimens of the sea, including half a dozen East and West Coast oysters on the half shell; Florida lobster and jumbo lump crab cocktail; and a carpaccio of Sardinian bluefin tuna garnished with bay scallops, Meyer lemon, and olive oil. Petrossian "Imperial Special Reserve" caviar is offered, too, but the price for this, as with various other items on the menu, is listed as AQ — which I presume stands for Ask Quietly.
Some customers choose to customize their own salumi and formaggio board. Choices include the familiar prosciutto di parma, coppa, soppressata, and the not-so-known finocchiona, a Tuscan salami speckled with fennel. Mozzarella, Taleggio, Pecorino, and Parmigiana are the cheeses, each item $7 and squired by truffled honey, amarene cherries, and crostini. But the temptation for charcuterie is undercut by a complimentary and generous predinner serving of thinly sliced soppressata, chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano, fried zucchini slices, and cherry peppers stuffed with herbed bread crumbs. All are laid out rustically on a wooden board, which is brought to the table with a basket of puffy popovers possessing eggy centers zestfully flecked with herbs. You will not leave here hungry.
That's the point. DeVito has been quoted as saying the fare here (except Kobe steaks, caviar, and such) is like the Italian food he used to eat in his hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey — a place where people are known to get up from the table with a full belly. There is a homespun, family-style authenticity to some of the cuisine, but what would his old South Jersey friends say about paying $20 for a meatball appetizer? Not much, probably, because their mouths would be stuffed with bites from soft, light meat mellowed with soaked breading, capped with whipped ricotta cheese, and plunked into a spicy, fire-engine-red sauce made with San Marzano tomatoes. Then again, once they saw that the three humongous meatballs, if each were halved, could easily satisfy six diners, there would be no quibbling over price, either.
A bountiful salad containing crisp calamari rings, chopped mixed greens, diced vegetables, cherry tomatoes, partially raw white beans, and pine nuts is so ambitious a composition as to require two dressings: creamy garlic and truffled balsamic glaze. As with much of the food here, it was more Cheesecake Factory than traditional Italian, but the contrasting flavors fused unexpectedly well. We weren't nearly as happy with a starter of zucchini blossoms, one of the daintiest flowers in the gastronomic garden. The delicate orange/yellow petals were piped with a gray ricotta filling and then mercilessly crushed under the weight of a thickly battered fried crust.
Here's my beef: As I've mentioned, an eight-ounce center-cut A-5 Kobe rib eye fillet is $190. The same size cut of American Kobe goes for $145. A global Wagyu trio, for two to three people, is $325. Nebraska corn-fed steaks from Chicago's Stock Yards, each rubbed with "DeVito Dust" (bread crumbs, seasonings, fresh herbs), run $38 to $72. I started at the bottom rung of the scale with a sliced American Kobe flat-iron steak, which proved less well marbled than well gristled. It also arrived rare rather than the requested medium-rare. You know how some people like to say venison tastes like beef? This beef, with its mildly gamey and distinctively meaty flavor, tasted like venison (which steak aficionados will appreciate). On a return dinner, I worked my way up to a 10-ounce barrel-cut filet mignon ($44) — this time plated rare rather than medium. Still, it was a tender, satisfying steak, if a little overdusted.
While I was perusing a menu weeks before visiting DeVito, visions of an $8 lobster béarnaise steak garnish danced in my head. By the time we dined here, the price had jumped to $15, which is more than I am willing to pay for an emulsion — at least until I sell my first screenplay (it's going to be about a restaurant just like this one, called Throw Brauser from the Train). I settled for a sweet/tart combo of roast garlic and plum mostarde, plucked from a wide array of supplemental sauces available for $3 apiece. It was tasty, but it wasn't lobster béarnaise. For those desiring a more substantial crustacean fix, a quartet of lobster dishes goes for "market price." A three-and-a-half-pound Maine lobster, stuffed with shellfish, is currently marketed at $135; a 12-ounce Florida lobster tail oreganata is $90.
Which brings me to the 10-ounce Kobe burger, a mere $25. It was a double-decker abbondanza of dry, overcooked meat (medium-well rather than the requested medium-rare) capped with barely caramelized onions and melted provolone. A cup of pizzaiola sauce comes on the side, though some diners might prefer ketchup, lettuce, and tomato. Thin, pale, Mickey D's-style fries that also accompany the burger are trumpeted as "truffled parmesan fries," but lacked truffle taste. And is it really too much to ask that the kitchen crew cut up fresh potatoes to produce something better than the fare cheap burger chains sell?
At least this entrée came with an accompaniment. For almost everything else, you might consider a heftily portioned side plate of vegetables or starch such as roasted cauliflower gratin or fregula pearls of pasta toasted and tossed with peas, grilled corn, and pecorino cheese. Add $12 for each.
Linguine alle vongole gets crowned with clams on the half shell crumbed with that DeVito dust, which is sprinkled on nearly every dish. Underneath the shells, in clam broth, lays pasta tossed with broccoli rabé, garlic, and too many sun-dried tomatoes. Spaghetti alla Piemontese, a tangle of sweet peas, prosciutto, and Vidalia onions, with grated pecorino and ricotta salata cheeses, was dry and vapid and — worse — something a novice could whip up at home, better, in minutes. A plank of broiled wild salmon, although glazed with truffled honey mustard and matched with crunchy fennel shavings, was likewise flat and uninspired. Promised pomegranate, which would have contributed an alluring tartness, was nowhere to be found.
A custardy tiramisu classico with rum-laden ladyfingers and chocolate shavings pleased, but an intensely butterscotchy butterscotch budino (pudding) was overly sweet, even without the butterscotch syrup and whipped cream floated across the surface.
Framed and hung on the restaurant's brick walls are some half-dozen high-def TV screens, all but one or two simultaneously tuned to the same DeVito movie (the exceptions beaming a flickering electronic fireplace). These films only remind us that when it comes to acting, Danny really has the chops. And you needn't be a VIP to appreciate them.
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