Something seemed amiss as soon as we entered Jason's at the Harrison. The vaguely Vegas room, with black-and-white tiger-skin motif and thumping club music, didn't gel with the Mediterranean/Asian/American comfort cuisine of chef Jason McClain — who just a couple of months ago, and with much fanfare, had taken over the troubled South Beach steak house. His menu for the Harrison, previewed online, didn't seem especially creative or inspiring, but it was brilliant compared to the pricey, incredibly prosaic bill of fare handed to us upon being seated at the restaurant. The prix-fixe dinner, for instance, resembled the selections offered at a bar mitzvah: Choice of shrimp cocktail or calamari, steak or salmon, French fries or baked potato, cheesecake or chocolate cake. Something wasn't right, so we asked the waitress if Jason McClain was still chef. The answer, of course, was no: Jason's at the Harrison had been Jason-less "for a few weeks." We politely excused ourselves, exited the establishment, and walked next door to La Locanda.
The eight indoor and eight outdoor tables were nearly all taken, as they have been fairly steadily since this little Italian charmer opened in January 2003. La Locanda serves simple, homespun Italian fare at affordable rates, which makes it something of an oasis in a sea of glitzy, overpriced SoBe touristaurants like DeVito South Beach and Smith & Wollensky (although this block also boasts Fratelli La Bufala and Café Maurice, also friendly neighborhood joints).
Locanda's two owners have the right background for the rough-and-tumble world that is the restaurant business. Massimo Fortunato served with the Italian army in Somalia; Francesco Cavaletti was an undefeated boxer (13 bouts, 9 knockouts, a contract with Don King). You gotta be tough, but you also gotta be smart. Rather than spend a fortune on décor, the men achieved a rustic Italian look — and a cozy one at that — via splashy red walls, large mirrors, dark woods, dim lights, red brick accents, and a bric-a-brac of tavern-ish appointments. (Like a tavern, a locanda was a resting stop for weary horseback-riding travelers back in medieval times.) A quaint four-stool wine bar sits up front (although the space is so tiny it is difficult to differentiate front from back), canopied by racks of dangling glasses and stocked with a moderate number of moderately priced bottles — most under $30 (all glasses less than $10, and just $4.50 during daily "Italian happy hour" from 4 to 7). Imported beers include Moretti from Italy and the Bahamian Kalik.
Locanda does lots of things well. Although service isn't the suavest in town, waiters are well informed and personable in a manner appropriate for the informal setting. On-site owners reinforce the personal touch and ensure a smooth operation. Plus the cuisine is good enough to get the people coming back. However, I wasn't enthralled with the mini-meatball appetizer, featuring a half-dozen tender but tepid spheres soaked in mild red sauce. Pizza, served only during lunchtime, reminded me of the frozen stuff students suffer through in school cafeterias (given that each pie goes for $6.95, I suppose we shouldn't have expected much). A starter of calamari sautéed in white wine sauce and flecked with flakes of red chili pepper came lukewarm and lackluster. Chocolate cake was the stiff, oversugared variety produced by wholesale outlets.
So what did I like at Locanda? Everything else: A fresh bundle of baby arugula and ripe red cherry tomatoes tossed with olive oil and lemon juice, capped with wispy, parchmentlike peels of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Eggy strands of homemade "guitar pasta" — thicker, chewier, more textured than spaghetti — singing with rich notes of long-simmered lamb ragout. Bright yellow fiocchetti packets packed with mixed cheeses and a tiny touch of sweet pear, smothered in smooth, thick cream. Rack of veal, boasting four juicy, crisply crusted double chops in a pool of voluptuous porcini sauce. Medium-rare slices of grilled skirt steak tweaked with tangy gravy bolstered with reduced balsamic vinegar. The flavorful medley of sautéed vegetables and rosemary-roasted potatoes that accompany main courses. Fresh, fluffy tiramisu served in a bowl.
Prices have inched up a bit over the years, but Locanda still represents a South Beach bargain. Antipastos — which include a couple of carpaccio selections, two variations on the Caprese mozzarella-tomato combo, and a plate of cold cuts and cheeses — run $11 to $13. Pastas are $12 to $17, most meats and fish under $20 (rack of veal is $25). You'll pay a few dollars less for lunch offerings, which are similar to those at dinner but with the addition of sandwiches and the aforecriticized pizza.
In recent weeks, there has been a rash of clashes between newly installed chefs and restaurant management teams: Jason gone from Jason's. Jeffrey Brana gone from the Raleigh. Andrew Rothschild gone from Bourbon Steak. Norman Van Aken gone from Tavern N Town (in Key West). All big-name toques, each vanquished before the menu print dried. Dining at La Locanda means not having to deal with such inside politics. Here the star is not a high-profile chef, but a low-key and intimate environment eminently inviting for locals.
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