Low Prices, Low Prospects
The word tinello, according to Tinello Cucina Italiana's menu, translates as a "cozy dining room where friends and family get together." There might be some positive adjectives we can summon for this place, but "cozy" isn't one of them. The sparsely furnished, 70-seat restaurant sprawls in rather stark fashion across two storefronts, with more tables outside at the Miami Beach intersection of Alton Road and 41st Street -- right where the Julia Tuttle Causeway spits out its Beach-bound traffic.
A barren bar takes up the bulk of the dining room to the left; the right-hand space is bisected by a wheelchair-access ramp leading to an elevated dining area topped with a wooden trellis. The trellis is without grapes or any other vines, but hundreds of wine bottles are lined around the perimeter of otherwise minimally adorned, sponged orange walls. Tinted-wood dining tables contain little nosegays of days-old flowers that warm the space the way earth colors warm Dick Cheney. Just the same, the restaurant is clean, the ambiance casual, the staff accommodating. Tinello is mellow.
Warm wedges of rustic rosemary bread started us off in promising fashion, instilling confidence that the Italian cooking to come would be similarly homespun. A starter of eggplant croquettes reinforced that notion, the four balls looking like chocolate truffles rolled in dark bread crumbs, with mozzarella cheese centers oozing out like melted white chocolate. A smattering of honey-mustard-dressed field greens accompanied the croquettes, as did a side of lively red tomato sauce for dipping.
Fritto simpatico was worthwhile as well, a pair each of three fried treats: cylinders of potato croquettes that, on this occasion, were left in the fryer too long; arancini, or golden-fried globes of creamy rice perked with parmesan cheese and sweet green peas; and panzarotti, a crusty pale pastry encasing soft white cheese. Tomato sauce and greens again come along for the ride.
The rosemary bread and croquettes regrettably represent Tinello's best efforts, the remainder of the menu just conveyor-belt budget Italian fare. The starters, for instance, are all tried-and-true (and tired): mussels cooked with white wine and garlic; calamari sautéed with tomatoes and garlic; portobello mushrooms baked with goat cheese; antipasti plate with lackluster cold cuts and cheeses; an assortment of bruschetta; zucchini rolatini with ricotta cheese and tomato sauce (dyslexically referred to as "rotolini"); and antipastino Caprese, a mound of undressed field greens encircled by tiny tastes of the most mundane vegetables imaginable -- grilled yellow squash, canned red peppers, one slice of zucchini wrapped around goat cheese, a couple of mushroom and carrot slices, olives, and a crumble of parmigiano.
As with the appetizers, entrées maintain the simplicity but lack the lushness of real Italian cuisine -- no soups, no stews, no roasts. Lasagna is an exception to the no-slow-cooking rule, layers of sturdy noodles, cheese, and hard-boiled egg buried under a barrage of tomato sauce laden with ground pork and beef that denied the discernment of any tastes below. The more pleasantly light house tomato sauce complemented rounds of ravioli that were firm to the bite and swelled with mozzarella and caciotta, a soft, white, homemade cheese. Spinach tagiliatelli "ragu" came with no sauce at all but rather a tastily seasoned simmer of ground veal, minced carrots, and herbs that matched up well with thick, homemade strands of spinach-potent pasta. Parmesan was disappointingly powdered, but for $12.50 you can't be too picky. I've no qualms with Tinello's prices (starters are $7 to $11, entrées $9 to $16, nightly specials a little more), but the parmesan serves as a reminder that you get what you pay for.
The two fish dishes provided are grouper poached in tomato broth, and potato-crusted salmon with white wine sauce, the narrow fillet topped with thin, ridged slices of tuber, not crispy enough to warrant the fuss, and superfluous in light of delicately roasted potatoes on the same plate. A cacophony of capers contributed too salty a note to the sauce, which was mostly sopped up by a side of spinach anyway.
A generous slab of grilled skirt steak was sensibly seasoned and adeptly cooked, served with "Tinello fries," which translates to hand-cut, limp, and possessive of more fresh herbs than all other menu items combined. (When we asked for ketchup we got a cup of thin, ketchup-flavored water.) A flattened, crisp-skinned Cornish hen was moist within and paired with yet another cluster of field greens -- I know it's supposed to be salubrious to eat three servings of salad each day, but all in one sitting? Plus these greens were positioned under the hot hen, and I'm not sure that wilted lettuce dressed in warm poultry fat is considered healthy; it certainly isn't tasty. Italian sweet sausage, a stir-fry of chicken breast with vegetables, and rosemary-skewered shrimp comprise the rest of the prosaic main courses, along with the specials.
The wait staff is well-intentioned but not well trained; they're also not much of a staff. On one Friday night visit, when about three dozen patrons seated themselves almost simultaneously, just two waiters were working -- no host, no bus people, no manager. The overwhelmed duo tried gamely to keep up, but the resultant slow service was utterly predictable. We waited quite some time for our coffee and desserts. Tinello runs on cruise control with no one at the wheel.
Lemon tiramisu is tabbed as the "special" of the house, which says more about the dessert selection than the tiramisu. There are only three offered. The other two are a chocolate mousse cake and a fresh, dense, flourless chocolate cake (torta Caprese) with vanilla ice cream, so if you don't go for cocoa, it's lemon tiramisu or bust. Actually the tiramisu was a bust, without liquor or espresso, really just ladyfingers with lemon mascarpone icing. The coffee tasted as though it had been made at breakfast and kept all day on a lukewarm hot plate.
I find many of Miami's budget Italian restaurants to be lukewarm too, and about as inspiring as vanilla ice cream -- even within the context of elementary expectations. Then again, they all seem to do pretty well. Tinello still has some kinks to work out, but given time I have confidence this humble eatery can likewise attain its goal of successful mediocrity.
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