There's a lot of Italian out there: the new and old, the good, the bad, and the ugly; the great, unfortunately, seem to be rare. I do think there are a few restaurants in town turning out exquisite cuisine from Europe's boot. And there are plenty of decent places for a good spot of pasta; I'm often content to slurp the occasional plate of capellini from the Sport Cafés, Tutto Pastas, and Oggis of the world. For a few bucks, they turn out tasty, basic food without any pretensions, the kind of thing I might throw together at home but just don't feel up to. That's not the case, though, for yet another Italian addition to the South Beach scene, Macaluso's, which promises "real food in an atmosphere that touches all five senses." (Huh?)
On the night we ventured into the tiny new space located in an annoyingly difficult-to-get-to strip mall on Alton Road and Dade Boulevard across from Boston Market, we arrived starving. What we found was a menu almost entirely made up of pastas prepared a dozen different ways, with a couple of chicken specials and some scallops thrown in.
While we considered our limited choices, we picked at a broccoli salad, which the waiter promised would be "the best salad you've ever tasted in your entire life." Um, uh-uh. It turned out to be an overpriced and pathetic excuse for an appetizer. The handful of overcooked florets were yellow on the tips and doused in an oily vinaigrette that hardly masked the dusty taste of the aging vegetable. Even aided by some colorful and crunchy bits of onion and peppers, it hardly lived up to its $8.50 price tag.
1747 Alton Rd, Miami Beach; 305-604-1811.
Open Tuesday through Sunday, noon till 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. to midnight. Closed Mondays.
The two chicken specials the waiter described to us turned out to be "temporarily not available," as were the fish dishes. In fact unless we planned to do some serious carbo loading, we were simply out of luck. There was not a single source of protein available, except if you count a bean sauce, a white clam sauce on one of the pastas, or the scallop special. Forget about the last of these. That's a chance I never take in a new restaurant, especially one with very few customers. I figured the clam sauce would be the safest bet and a good one to test the skill of the chef/host who, according to the menu, uses "traditional family recipes" to create his "unique preparations." Yet when pressed to describe the dish, the waiter confessed the sauce was not made from fresh clams but was in fact from a can. From a can. Hey, no big deal if you want to open a can of Progresso to pour on top of some boxed noodles. It's not a bad last-minute meal. But to charge fourteen dollars and fifty cents for a dish thrown together from items you keep on hand for a hurricane? That's nerve. Or maybe theft.
I still couldn't find anything I wanted to order. Frustrated but hopeful, I finally settled on "Grandma Lena's ravioli and peas." I remembered reading about the dish in a rave review some weeks earlier in the Miami Herald. It was described as follows: "Ravioli and peas is a classic we haven't seen making the rounds in Miami. Ravioli are plump with ricotta and generously dressed in a clear sauce of tiny peas and fresh basil. It is a delicate dish, light, gently flavored, perfect for our climate." Not even close. Grandma's ravioli were flat and dense and covered in plain, heavy olive oil and studded with peas the color of an army mess tent. The green-gray legumes were as soft as mashed potatoes and about as exciting. There was no basil in sight, and the freshest thing on the plate was the ground pepper that we urged the waiter to bring to liven up the meal. Price of that insult: $14.
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My husband's penne with bready meatballs and oil sauce was equally bland.
I don't mind paying good money for food that is distinctive, delicious, and that takes a bit of skill to put together. For example, $16 for a plate of Escopazzo's pappardelle with wild hare sauce is a pleasure, even a bargain. I'd pay twice that and not complain. The noodles are homemade, the sauce hearty, complex, and full of flavor, and the meat unusually tender and sweet. There is nothing at Macaluso's that compares with any of Miami's truly fine Italian eateries.
Still, if you can get over the bad food and inflated prices (I can't) Macaluso's shouldn't be classified as one of the uglies. The cozy 30-something-seat dining room is handsome, dressed in gauzy white curtains and crisp white table linens. Subdued overhead lighting makes the inside almost romantic, while seats at the breezy tables outside are pleasant despite the traffic from nearby Alton Road. Waiters are garrulous and attentive. And the owner, who visits each table to chat with patrons, seems energetic and eager to please.
Nonetheless, unless the quality of the food improves, I take bets this new little eatery will be gone before they have a reason to print up a new batch of menus. With any luck when it closes we'll get an Asian restaurant, or at least a place I can go a little easier on.