Prime Italian Is Prime Turf
I invited Vinnie Sabellico to dinner at Prime Italian partly out of curiosity: How would an old-school New Yorker raised in Little Italy react to hoity-toity presentations of what he calls the "peasant food" of his youth? Vinnie, who worked as a butcher for 15 years, regaled me with a description of how a sheep's head would be cut, wrapped, and poached — all parts used, including the eyes. "Half a head went for ten cents; a whole head was a quarter." That price included bread, with a glass of wine for an extra dime. "Now," he lamented, "it would probably cost $40." I was going to say that if Prime Italian served sheep's head, which was highly unlikely, it would probably cost twice that amount.
Instead, I asked, "What would you say about a $30 meatball?"
I was hoping for something along the lines of "Fongoul! That's more than I effing paid for my first car!" Vinnie, after all, looks as though he could be a veteran but still dapper character actor from a Scorsese film. He has the right accent too. But all I got was a nonchalant "I would say that's an expensive meatball."
Who can argue? The meatloaf-size serving of Kobe beef gets plated numerous ways: with bufala ricotta; stuffed with ricotta and sausage; atop spaghetti ($35); and also in salad, on pizza, and as one of a trio of sliders. We sampled it straight in a sweet, mildly acidic marinara sauce dotted with roasted garlic cloves and perfumed with basil. It is about as close to a perfect meatball as one can make (excepting the absurd size): light, moist, tender, and fully flavored. We had already raved about the marinara when it accompanied a complimentary loaf of steamy garlic bread sopped in butter and herbs — and enthusiastically hopped aboard the "gravy" train again when it pulled up, slightly spicier this time, alongside a starter of crisp and greaseless fried calamari.
Sinatra crooned over the speakers from the moment we entered Prime Italian's stylish dining room — predictable music, but nonetheless suitable. The moderately priced Italian restaurant ViVi was the first tenant here, but owner Tom Billante has since moved next door (!) and upscale, with Gaia Ristorante. Billante is big in the South Florida dining world, and it will be interesting to see how he fares going head-to-head on the home turf of Prime's proprietor, Myles Chafetz, the undisputed sultan of SoFi (his neighborhood kingdom south of Fifth Street encompasses Nemo, Big Pink, Shoji Sushi, and one of America's largest cash cows, Prime One Twelve, which is located directly across the street from Prime Italian).
The space is somberly set with black-topped tables and gray-toned bricks, but floral highlights and vibrant red seating brighten the room, floor-to-ceiling windows lighten it, and a tightly packed bar standing in the center provides a color all its own. A wraparound patio features alfresco dining not far from the sandy tip of South Beach (there are still a few vacancies left between bulky new condo towers for the ocean breeze to squeeze through). The only men the age of my dinner guest among this well-heeled clientele were escorted by globetrotting young women with globes trotting from their blouses. Vinnie commented on one such couple seated nearby: "God gives you steak when you got no teeth."
Ah, the steaks. Prime, dry-aged cuts include an eight-ounce, $38 filet mignon; 22-ounce, $56 bone-in rib eye; 48-ounce, $88 porterhouse for two; and Japanese A5 Kobe filet mignon, which is $30 per ounce with a two-ounce minimum. Selection and prices are the same as those at Prime One Twelve, as are the compound butters and steak sauces of every stripe (truffle, peppercorn, horseradish, Gorgonzola, béarnaise) for a $2 or $3 surcharge. The filet mignon, seared on the grill and burnished with butter, boasted a beautifully dark crust and juicy red interior — a great steak.
The petite shells of some three dozen Manila clams blanketed thick, tubular homemade pasta that was perfectly chewy and satisfying even if, as Vinnie noted, "it wasn't spaghetti" (as the menu claimed). The sauce appeared to comprise a 50-50 blend of butter and olive oil, making this rendition richer than most. As anyone who has ever attended a clam bake can attest, the flavor of butter is unbeatable with steamed clams.
Veal milanese on the bone was pounded to an impressively presented thickness, but the scaloppine was disappointingly thin-to-the-bite (especially around the exceedingly slender perimeter), and the breading was overcooked. Salad on the same plate brought vibrant vinaigrette-dressed greens, juicy cubes of bursting ripe tomatoes, and thin shingles of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Not much in the way of local seafood is offered, but there is Chilean sea bass, Hawaiian big-eye tuna, Mediterranean branzino, and so forth. An adroitly grilled swordfish steak putanesca gratified with caper-and-olive-studded red sauce, sizzled garlic chips, and a bright accompaniment of broccoli rabe sautéed with olive oil and garlic.
An evidently well-whipped round of ricotta cheesecake proved exceptionally soft and creamy, the graham-crusted cake perked by a sweet moat of macerated strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. This one is large enough for two to share. The chocolate "Ho Ho," a ring-ding of a dessert, can sate twice that many. The yule log of chocolate cake features jelly rolled with whipped cream and coated in a thin sheath of dark chocolate — a bigger, only slightly more refined version of the Hostess treat. It is, as noted, eminently splittable among a large group, but you'll have to scrap it out for the accompanying, quaintly portioned quenelle of scrumptious roasted-marshmallow ice cream capped with bronzed marshmallow meringue.
There was no sheep's head to be found at Prime Italian, nor anything else ambitiously regional — only a couple of oddball menu inclusions such as barbecue chicken with cilantro. Rather, the restaurant succeeds as an all-purpose upscale Italian dining venue. In addition to the aforementioned starters, diners can begin their meal by choosing from soups; salads; coal-oven pizzas; oysters; caviar; cocktails of shrimp, crab, or lobster; baked clams; fried bufala mozzarella; and antipasti, whose star attraction is wispy shavings of 500-day-aged Parma prosciutto. Besides the steaks, seafoods, and pastas are classics such as hot and sweet sausages, shrimp scampi, lobster fra diavolo, eggplant parmigiana, and about two dozen à la carte sides, including a whole section devoted to spuds.
Portions here are incredibly hefty (I didn't mention the chopped salad, but to say it can feed six to eight is absolutely not an exaggeration), service is good, the cuisine is very good, and thus the exorbitant bill at evening's end should surprise no one. Vinnie surely enjoyed the meal and thanked me more than once. One has to wonder, though, whether those patrons paying the tab will leave Prime Italian in as appreciative a mood.
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