Osteria del Teatro opened on the corner of Washington Avenue and Espanõla Way in 1987; the name denotes its original role as adjunct to the Cameo Theater next door. Things here have hardly changed since. Osteria still provides a decidedly 20th-century dining experience. This is not generally considered a savvy strategy for success in the 21st Century, but Osteria has retained the best attributes of fine-dining establishments without subscribing to the more regrettable ones.
Maitre d' Gilbert Gonzalez, for example, is hospitable rather than haughty when greeting and seating guests. Six years ago, he and chef Martin Perez became partners with original owner Dino Pirola. Gonzalez learned the ropes from Dino, who at one time was considered the Beach's premier host. Osteria's ambiance isn't heavy in a weary Old World way either: Two wraparound walls with floor-to-ceiling windows open up the room to one of the most interesting intersections in South Beach. Framed posters on the north wall are modern in a relative sense (latter part of the 20th Century), although they are looking dowdier by the day; this is one part of Osteria that could use an update.
Osteria also reminds us of aspects of dining that we miss, such as being able to enjoy a meal without the strobe of flat-screen TV sets and the din of club music thrashing overhead (the acoustics, however, are loud). And patrons are served by an experienced, professional waitstaff that has been with the restaurant for a long time; they know all the regulars by name and treat first-timers as though they were regulars. That's another throwback: Osteria's success relies on its staff's relations with the public rather than on a public relations staff.
The stellar service not only elevates the overall dining experience but also makes a meal more conducive to romantic inclinations. The following scenario, for instance, would never take place at Osteria:
"Darling, as I look into your eyes —"
"Sorry to interrupt you guys, butcha ready to order yet?"
A basket of focaccia squares, wheat bread, and long, thin slices of baguette was brought to start, followed shortly thereafter by the presentation of two lobster-size "shrimp" offered as one of a half-dozen nightly specials. We split a single order ($16) as an appetizer, but I could have eaten a few more. The sweet, lightly grilled langoustine flavor was lifted by a mist of lemon, garlic, and olive oil.
Perez, who has been at Osteria since its inception, mostly sticks to textbook renditions of old-school favorites. An eggplant Parmesan starter is prepared the way Italians in my Brooklyn neighborhood used to make it (excepting some zucchini disks slipped into the mix), with thin slices, hearty tomato sauce, minimal mozzarella, and a punctuation of Parmesan. Pasta e fagioli features a broth thickened and flavored with kidney and cannellini beans; short ditalini tubes are the only other visible ingredient. Add a sprinkling of Parmesan and it's pretty much what sits on rustic tables in Tuscany.
We appreciated the pappardelle with porcini mushrooms, not owing to the homemade ribbons of noodles being the widest we've seen, but because the two named ingredients were bolstered simply by olive oil and a rumor of truffle oil. A serving of veal ravioli doesn't get trapped under too many flavors either. Thick, homemade pasta dough is bundled around moist, minced, richly flavored veal and plated with meaty nubs of crisp pancetta, fried sage leaves, and a pool of lightly browned butter — altogether a tasty if not especially delicate dish.
The ravioli and pappardelle are just two of a number of pasta specials that stand out not only for solid execution but also for unusually high price: $28 to $34. Regular-menu pastas such as alla vongole (clams) and puttanesca go for an only slightly more reasonable $19; main courses range from $30 to $42. Osteria is an expensive joint.
Osso buco is a house specialty. The tender veal shank comes buried under bright-red tomato sauce with a perky rosemary sprig sticking upward. Beneath is a bed of risotto Milanese whose grains were tinted a pale shade of saffron. Large steaks and veal chops are proffered from the grill; salmon and tilapia are the less-than-intriguing fish offerings, although specials such as Chilean sea bass and lobster come prepared in a number of ways. The rules of ordering here are flexible; the kitchen crew is very accommodating when it comes to substitutions and will create just about anything requested if they have the goods on hand.
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The potential pitfalls of veal piccata are many. The meat can be overcooked, or pounded so thin as to taste only of breading. The breading can be too darkly pan-fried, too soggy, or too salty in tandem with the capers. There can likewise be too many capers, and lemon sauce is prone to being overly acidic. Osteria's rendition brings three slightly flattened fillets with a light, eggy coating. The caper-salt-lemon balance is just right and aptly quiet; the veal flavor comes through quite clearly. Sides of impeccably cooked haricots verts, vegetable-laced lentils, and a textbook potato gratin hark back to the old days when a plate of food routinely included starch and vegetable.
Desserts are displayed on a pasty cart by the restaurant entrance. Culinary theoreticians would frown on this practice: Having so many calories in sight can only consciously or subconsciously sway diners to order less food — either for dietary reasons or to save room/calories for the sweets.
Theoretician schmeoretician. We were not thusly swayed. Crème brûlée arrived in a customary shallow oval dish — a classic take defined by smooth, creamy custard and a crackly, blackened crown. Tiramisu is mascarpone-dominant but always scooped from a bowl that is made fresh daily. Tarte tatin touts darkly caramelized apples with a prebought puff pastry crust — a telling sign there's no pastry chef on premises. Yet Osteria del Teatro isn't about having the best desserts in town, or even the finest Italian cuisine. Rather, it remains popular because of consistently gratifying food and attentive, personal service that is unequaled on the Beach.
View our Osteria del Teatro slide show.