Ni.Do. Caffe, Under New Ownership, Hits Home
Servers' enthusiastic handshakes begin the moment guests step inside the antique-white dining room. Patrons are guided by the arm past oil paintings of the Italian countryside and monochromatic street scenes to peruse the offerings that await on an ice-covered tray near the door. There's a whole branzino, orata, and langoustine as large as forearms.
Then diners are swifted into mismatched seats and presented a basket of either house-made country bread or pita-like focaccia sprinkled with sea salt and rosemary. A lengthy menu follows, explaining why Ni.Do. Caffe is a place you'll want to eat.
It shares a quaint homeyness with the original, which opened on Biscayne Boulevard near NE 79th Street in 2012 and has become a staple of the booming MiMo District. The latest addition began serving just north of Miami Shores in mid-August. Though both have a few traits in common, the younger sibling offers an expanded list of pastas while swapping land proteins like rib eyes and veal scaloppine for seafood.
Fifty-five-year-old Claudio Sandri was hired over the summer to help arrange the menu. He began working in restaurants near Torino, Italy, at age 14 and lived in Europe until he was nearly 40. He eventually made it to the United States, spending almost a decade at Washington, D.C.'s now-shuttered Italian institution Galileo before moving to South Florida. Here, he's bounced around Fort Lauderdale kitchens and those in the Coconut Creek Casino.
But he's better placed in Miami turning out simple fare for the 90-seat dining room of the consummate neighborhood Italian restaurant. His skill shows in a plate of saucer-size ravioli scattered with diced plum tomatoes, fried sage, and a drizzle of brown butter. Savory shreds of braised lamb shank are tucked inside, and each round is stained cornflower yellow thanks to an abundance of egg yolks in the dough. It's a genius move that gives all of Ni.Do.'s house-made pastas a rich flavor and pleasing bite.
Also not to be missed are the pizzas, which you won't find at the original location. They're made with a bit of yeast and then allowed to rise for nearly 36 hours. They boast crisp crusts with just a touch of pliability.
Try the Emilia, layered with hand-pulled mozzarella, arugula, and prosciutto in a tangy tomato sauce. Suppli, similar to the popular Roman fried rice balls called arancini, are equally crowd-pleasing. Instead of using yellow saffron risotto, Sandri cooks the short-grain rice tender in a tomato-based concoction. It's cooled, formed into small footballs around a hunk of mozzarella, breaded, and fried.
Lighter, more nuanced plates are scattered throughout the menu. Cheeses like milky bufala campana laced with smoky whiffs are served with a bright blend of tender red and yellow pepper strands nudged with a bit of spice. The fruity Kermit-green olives called Castelvetrano lend a slight tartness and waxy texture, making them a good match for each creamy bite.
Be sure to pair the plate with more unusual wines culled from Italian microclimates. A white from Lugana offers the deep richness of a Chardonnay but with some of the fruity sweetness you'd expect of a cloying Riesling. Nerello Mascalese, a red grape grown in Sardinia and Sicily, is a rich, easy drink but would be better with some edge.
Also attractive is the octopus carpaccio, with thin slices of bunched and poached tentacles placed onto the plate and topped with a small pile of arugula. But nearly every bite tasted strangely like canned tuna, with an odd, mealy mouthfeel.
The kitchen fares much better with other seafood. A whole orata — also called dorade and Mediterranean sea bream — is rubbed down with rosemary, extra-virgin olive oil, and lemon and then roasted. A server fillets it tableside and, just after setting it down, hits the slightly oily flesh with another generous splash of fruity olive oil. A request for the head, where some of the tenderest flesh awaits, is met with applause.
Sandri's desserts proffer a sophistication uncommon for a neighborhood place. One called Il Cioccolato seems like your average ganache. Yet red pepper folded inside gives each bar a tongue-tickling spice. Sandri presses a crust of figs, walnuts, and hazelnuts onto one side of a rich bar, and before it's served, the plate is hit with a sprinkle of salt. The scoop of fig-walnut ice cream is almost too much.
It's the one dish where the kitchen seems to break the ancient Italian maxim of simple food. Yet it works perfectly alongside the old rules, which keep the rest of the menu in line and fit for a Sunday night with family or any other amalgam of company you might conjure. It's the kind of place you hope pops up in your neighborhood, and soon.
11052 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 786-953-5120; nidocaffe.com. Monday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Bufala campana $13
Octopus carpaccio $15
Ravioli di osso buco di vitello $21
Grilled orata $32
Pizza Emilia $16
Il Cioccolato $9
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