Noodles Of Engagement
There are no menus handed out at Macaluso's, a smart-looking Italian restaurant sitting almost secretly in a ministrip mall off Alton Road in South Beach. Instead most of the ten appetizers and seventeen main courses were rapidly enumerated by our waiter, a practice that I believe unfairly punishes those of us with short-term memory issues (besides, I thought the advent of pen and paper meant an end to this sort of oratorical ordeal). After the lengthy recital, replete with show-and-tell basket of pastas, I was too embarrassed to ask the waiter: Uh, could you repeat the part after you said, "I'm going to tell you about tonight's dinner choices"? So I squinted my eyes and read off the blackboard menu hanging by the open kitchen on the back wall, the degree of difficulty in doing so determined by where one is seated.
The lack of written menus doesn't mean you get nothing to read. There's a short wine list of Italian grapes that complements the menu appropriately, along with a laminated listing of chef/owner Michael Vito D'Andrea's "13 Commandments" -- his personalized rules of engagement for dining at Macaluso's. That Mr. D'Andrea treats his restaurant very seriously is not surprising. He comes from three generations of Italian-American cooks (including Grandma Lena, whom some dishes are named after, and his mother, whose maiden name is Macaluso), and he opened this risky hideaway restaurant with nothing but a dream and money gleaned from credit cards.
His dedication is refreshing to see, although some diners may quibble with a few of the dictates, such as "No substitutions or changes to the menu"; "No salad dressing served on the side"; and "Allergic to olive oil, garlic, or tomatoes? This is an Italian restaurant and those are our staples."
Everyone should be happy with D'Andrea's devotion to using quality products like DeCecco pastas, Poma Rosa San Marzano canned plum tomatoes, first cold press extra virgin olive oil, and Mediterranean sea salt. There isn't exactly a plethora of specialty items (in fact there are hardly any), but the ingredients used are honest. I guess that's what those three X-Files-ish words printed on the front of Macaluso's business card refer to: "Finally the truth."
You don't have to pay too high a price for the truth (appetizers $7 to $15, main courses $15 to $26), but the little things add up: A couple having dessert and a glass of house wine apiece (chianti flecked with slices of fresh peach), and sharing one bottle of water, will manage to pad their bill by $39 before tax or tip.
Now for the good news, which encompasses most everything else. The dining room, which was expanded in May, is clean-lined and handsome with dark-wood floors, warm burgundy walls, Britto prints in black frames -- nothing new or exciting, but it works. Dim lights, lotsa Sinatra music, and a wide amount of space between the eleven tables contribute to a relaxed, romantic ambiance, while a steady flow of enthusiastic customers adds the sort of energy that makes dining exciting.
Service is superb, the well-trained team constantly in motion and rarely missing a detail. It's unusual to find this level of waitstaff competence on the Beach, which helps explain the aforementioned steady flow of diners, even on sultry summer nights. Another explanation would be the potently flavored Italian food. D'Andrea disarms with straightforward, even humble dishes, elevating them through solid recipes and fresh, caring preparation.
Can't get more modest than a meatball, and those rolled at Macaluso's are large, plump, tender, and tasty, available either dappled in red sauce and fresh basil as a starter, as a salad (yes, you read that right), or with linguine or long fusilli as a main course.
Thin slices of meatball also come atop crisply crusted pizzas but get a little dried-out in the process. The pie doughs, though made with bottled water, seem ordinary, but perk up with fresh, noncanned toppings such as prosciutto, spinach, broccoli rabe, mushrooms, or sausages -- which, like the meatballs, are homemade and manage to squeeze their way into quite a few menu items.
An antipasto plate came with caesar-dressed romaine lettuce covering slices of imported hard salami, cappacola, and prosciutto di San Daniele Negroni; olives, pickled peppers, and two thick wedges of hard provolone rested on top. The basket of chewy, thickly sliced, baked-on-site Italian bread that greets diners with each meal went just right with the cold cuts and cheese. So did triangles of garlic toast that accompanied "Sinatra's shrimp" -- four meaty, lightly fried prawns dusted with piquant garlic coating and served with hot pepper-imbued olive oil.
Macaluso's menu is dominated by pasta dishes, all prepared consistently and impeccably al dente, whether it be linguine with fresh, saline littleneck clams (and plenty of garlic), or fusilli with spinach and white beans (and plenty of garlic). Big bowls get passed from the glistening open kitchen to D'Andrea's work station in the dining room, where he adds finishing touches, places plates on the counter, and watches as waitstaff whisk them away to the tables, leaving behind locomotive-like trails of steam that quickly dissipate in air.
Exemplary rigatoni with escarole, white cannellini beans, and shaved slices of Locatelli Romano cheese was marred by, of all things, the homemade sausages. D'Andrea prepares over 100 pounds a week from the cut of pork called Boston butt, but on this occasion the links burst forth with flavor from fennel seed, coarse black pepper, and, unfortunately, too much salt.
The only nonshellfish seafood selection on the nights we dined was grilled tuna. There were no beef, duck, or lamb items available, but numerous chicken and veal offerings picked up the slack. "Grilled veal" is something you don't often see: two juicy, top-round cutlets over a bed of garlic-sautéed rappini -- a light, refreshing alternative to heavily sauced bludgeons of veal chop.
Like the cuisine, desserts are standards prepared in fresh, homemade fashion. A smoothly satisfying tiramisu gets a new twist via the addition of fresh blueberries, whereas ricotta cheesecake follows with tradition -- lighter, lemony, more textured than regular cheesecake and, as is custom, scrumptious. Both come with scoops of ice cream on the side.
Macaluso's exudes the buzz, hum, and clatter of a restaurant that's clicking on all cylinders. By the time I dined here again I didn't even mind the verbal menu presentation -- when fresh ingredients are prepared by people who care, which specific dishes you pick becomes almost irrelevant. Michael D'Andrea can proudly croon, as Frank does over the restaurant speakers, "I did it my way!"
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