Home Sweet Home
It's understandable if you haven't yet heard about Casa Tua (pronounced "too-ah"). After all it doesn't advertise, and there's no signage on the restaurant, which, to daytime passersby on Seventeenth Street in South Beach, appears to be nothing more than a stunning stone Mediterranean-style beach house. An iron fence and lush foliage further mask this semi-secret eatery from the street, but come dinnertime the front gates open to a bricked, outdoor garden terrace of white linen-topped tables, with votive candles and a tin planter of rosemary on each one.
As you enter the gorgeously appointed home, to the left is a dining room with one long eighteen-seat communal chef's table, and a sparkling white, wide-open kitchen directly behind it. The rest of the rooms, to the right side of the foyer, are designed to make diners feel as though they're in the home of a good friend -- a very wealthy friend with exquisite taste, that is. Five boutique hotel rooms occupy the upstairs, along with a bar/lounge and cozy outdoor balcony on which to quaff cocktails. This is an exceedingly lovely dining venue. Then again I'm a sucker for restaurants housed in homes -- they're always so comfortable, and intimate, and, well, homey. They usually feature fine food and service, too, and more often than not are quite expensive. Casa Tua meets all of these criteria.
Executive chef Sergio Sigala, a young Italian man with Old World, Michelin-star training, along with sous-chef Gabriela Bergomi, creates oft-changing menus of the simple but sophisticated cuisine of Italy, the type more likely to contain porcinis and truffles than tomatoes and chopped beef. On one visit we were started with an amuse-bouchée of delicate white asparagus-and-zucchini soup swirled with parsley purée; another time brought a tomato/zucchini/basil variation. Waiters in white button-up suits discreetly approached the table with baskets of bread sticks, focaccia, sourdough, and olive bread, all fresh and enticing enough to make us eat more than we should have. Service was smooth and attentive, the staff eager and able to discuss the menu in detail. In many places this wait team would be described as professional and well-trained; for the Beach they're exceptional.
An appetizer of burrata mozzarella cheese with "six tomato salad" glistened with ripe, sweet tomatoes, though I expected more colorful heirlooms than yellow cherry and red cherry, grape, plum, and teardrops. I know that's only five, but I don't want to nitpick because the burrata had so alluring a salty/sweet flavor and was deliciously moist.
One of the few letdowns was a starter of red wine-marinated beef, cold slices slightly thicker than the common carpaccio cut, matched with small toscanello white beans and so many papery shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano piled on top that the plate looked like a miniature of my cluttered desk. So far so good, but both beef and beans were on the dry side, and would have profited from additional splashes of fruity olive oil. The plate and its components were also too well chilled, which dulled the flavors.
Flat ribbons of pappardelle noodles came bathed in a deep, meaty, barely tomato-based lamb ragu that is to regular Bolognese sauce what Quartirolo Lombardo cheese, which capped the pappardelle, is to Kraft Parmesan -- much, much better. It was a perfect pasta dish, just like you'd find in Italy itself, but I hesitate to recommend it because all the other pastas carried into the room looked just as good.
Four delicate fillets of Dover sole, lightly breaded and sautéed, needed only two sweetly braised cipollini onions, snippets of barely cooked asparagus spears, and a whisper of a lime sauce to brighten into a stellar seafood entrée. Less meritorious was branzino, a fleshy, Mediterranean fish similar in texture to sea bass. A small rectangle of the white fish was gently contrasted by an olive crust, and accompanying cherry tomatoes, sautéed cabbage, basil, and balsamic vinegar offered sensible support, but somehow the combination proved only vaguely satisfying.
Casa Tua's showstopper was a glorious main course of two little bronzed, boneless quails filled with chopped veal, fresh sage, and Parmesan, a glossy brown sauce flecked with black truffle slices pooled below the succulent birds. It's true that with seared slices of pumpkin squash and porcini and chanterelle mushrooms on the side this dish is a bit too autumnal in tone for right now, but in my book outstanding flavor trumps seasonal appropriateness every time.
My book also says that vegetarians have a right to dine in establishments without being subjected to bland pastas and grimly grilled vegetable plates as their only options. Casa Tua offers a vegetable entrée capable of luring even the most committed of carnivores: plump stalks of white asparagus with runny poached egg and black truffles, the latter shaved in front of our eyes, which widened as fungi flakes fell so thickly they resembled the negative image of a New England snowstorm.
Casa Tua's desserts would be apt for an Italian old age home, meaning you don't need teeth to eat the mostly custardy treats, which include a vanilla and amarene cherry crème brûlée, cappuccino panna cotta, white and dark chocolate mousse, and soft, dainty square of tiramisu. There is no cheese course offered, probably because South Florida diners have tended to be less than enthusiastic over the idea, but a small selection (Gorgonzola, Bel Paese, a pecorino or Parmesan, and so on) would seem especially well suited to the refined Italian wines, robust cuisine, and leisurely pace of dinner here.
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