South Beach's high-profile, high-price restaurants are scared. Facing the summer after a slow-starting and not particularly profitable season, some eateries are following the long-standing Joe's Stone Crab policy and taking a vacation. (At Joe's, of course, the practice is timed with the stone-crab season.) But around these parts, temporary closings have a way of turning out to be self-fulfilling prophecies. More enterprising -- or more desperate -- restaurateurs have drawn up alternative plans. Now that the tourists are gone, they've come up with the bright idea of targeting locals. Which means that for the next three sticky months, we can look forward to lower-price "summer menus," and my personal favorite, the three-course "Twilight Dinner." (The euphemism doesn't fool me. Not since Miami Beach was known as "God's Waiting Room" have this many early-bird specials come home to roost.)
All of which is fine by me. But as someone who's on for the long haul, I'm not overly impressed with quick fixes. I'd much rather seek out establishments that make a year-round effort to cultivate residents. Such as Washington Avenue's Mediterranean-Italian Fellini Restaurant, one of the few upscale Beach eateries where menu modifications don't signify the restaurateur's summer-season loss of heart, but rather an attempt to please a steady clientele.
Although a framed poster of the legendary filmmaker hangs on the wall, Fellini's decor is commendably free of Planet Hollywood-type memorabilia. A soaring ceiling is a deep, rustic red; straight-backed wooden chairs are all slightly different in design. Draperies in natural colors and fabrics dress the storefront windows, allowing privacy from inquisitive foot traffic; real candles burn atop the tables, which are covered with double linens done in blue and white. Fellini's lone nod to the Beach scene -- a red-curtained "cabaret stage" and a DJ setup, used to promote a Cassis-style night -- might warn off nonpartying types, were not the entire effect of the restaurant that of a comfortably romantic inn set somewhere in the Italian countryside.
A small menu allows the kitchen to handle several additional dishes nightly. Some of these specials eventually proved so popular that Fellini reprinted its menus, retaining old favorites and highlighting new ones. For example a buttery wild-mushroom risotto was featured as a special one night, paired with an excellent fillet of red snapper. On a subsequent visit a shrimp risotto, fragrant with wine, garlic, and chopped shrimp (whole shrimp would have been less tough and more appealing), was offered as a write-in. On a third trip to Fellini, risotto had become a permanent menu fixture.
I can only hope that some of the items deleted from the menu will reappear as specials. A juicy breast of chicken, for example, boneless and marked from the grill, served with slices of grilled eggplant, yellow squash, and zucchini, and a dollop of Parmesan cheese-laced mashed potatoes. A tangy octopus and calamari antipasto, served over tender baby lettuces, also disappeared (though its price of $12 made it the restaurant's most expensive appetizer by far, it was a delicious treat).
Fellini's homemade pastas are inventive, served in generous but not overwhelming portions that are ideal for sharing as a first course. The most recent incarnation of the menu features potato-and-Parmesan cappelletti verde -- long, flat twists of emerald-flecked noodles -- served with a red pepper coulis. I tried the pasta when it was offered with a subtle sage-and-pine nut butter sauce, which was superlative. Another pasta that utilizes potato flour, the strozzapreti ("priest stranglers") with freshly shucked corn, julienne tomatoes, and arugula chiffonnade, was a fabulous plate of thin, chewy twists, similar in density and texture to gnocchi. The ribbons of sauteed arugula, tomato, corn, and zucchini provided color; the barest touch of cream made a dry sauce that just coated the noodles, flavoring them to perfection. In comparison, a plate of ricotta, spinach, and Parmesan tortelloni with tomato, basil, and mascarpone sauce was not particularly striking, the salty pink sauce dressing what seemed to be mostly empty pockets of dough.
Those who prefer their pasta as a dinner plate may want to start with an appetizer of roasted eggplant soup. Although this shallow bowl needed a twist of pepper and salt, the smoky, roasted flavor of pureed eggplant was wonderful. Another pleasing starter was the mixed-greens and herb salad; served at room temperature, the soft lettuce took well to the balsamic vinegar and olive oil the server brought on the side. But "mixed greens" is a misnomer: Among all the red and green leaf lettuce, I found only one piece of bright radicchio.
The kitchen doesn't lack for arugula, however, judging from the copious amounts that garnished the juicy, grilled portobello mushroom appetizer. Spiced with a nice touch of garlic and a drop of balsamic vinegar, the mushroom was dense and earthy, a well-executed contrast to the peppery snap of the arugula. The distinctive, herblike green served the same purpose with the beef carpaccio, livening the bland, fragile meat. Shavings of Parmesan also contributed a much-needed pungency to this dish.
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Bruschetta was more like an open-face sandwich than the classic, grilled tomato-and-garlic version. Two long slices of crusty peasant bread were lightly rubbed with garlic, layered with prosciutto and mozzarella cheese, melted slightly, then topped with slices of ripe tomatoes and chopped fresh oregano. Served on a wooden cutting board, this country-style appetizer was hearty, and big enough to share.
In the capable hands of chef Alan Hughes, seafood entrees take on a simple sophistication that leaves pastoral meadows behind. A grilled salmon fillet was a little too rare for the taste of one of my companions, but the sunset-red flake and flavor of the fish were outstanding; an accompanying warm white-bean salad was moistened with a basil-infused olive oil. Quality was also a key word for the grilled tuna. A thick cut grilled to an interior dark pink, the tuna was accented with a tangy tomato, caper, and olive relish. Sauteed grouper was a stunning rendition of Florida's favored fish, pan-roasted to a remarkable outer crispness. Giant, meaty flakes retained all of their moisture thanks to a light seal of salt and oil; a side dish of spinach doused with olive oil and flecked with roasted garlic was a fitting accompaniment.
We chose our dessert from a lovely list of dolci and cordials. Burnt-orange bread pudding, fresh strawberries with honey mascarpone, and hazelnut semifreddo were certainly tempting, but we opted for the pleasure of torta di cioccolato, a rich chocolate cake. A brownielike, pie-shape slice, the oven-hot sweet was decorated with a dollop of fresh whipped cream and large ripe raspberries.
Fellini's California and Italian wine list is small but moderately priced, ranging from the low $20 range to $95 for a bottle of Mondavi's Opus One (a decent buy). Waitstaff and management are consistently friendly and effective, and each successive meal at this restaurant was the equal of the one before -- or surpassed it. No need for early-bird specials here. Good service and great fare don't require any gimmicks.