Rolling on the Riviera

In November's issue of Gourmet magazine, columnist Fred Ferretti laments the obsessive labeling of culinary trends. "Why must our current crop of foodies," he asks, "now become preoccupied with Pacific Nouvelle Cuisine, Fusion Cuisine, Euro-Asian Cuisine, Crossroads Cuisine...even Nuevo Mundo Cuisine? Of late we even have Floribbean Cuisine."

This last term refers, of course, to the efforts of our very own regional chefs, who have combined South Florida's indigenous fish and vegetables with the fruits, spices, and cooking methods of various Caribbean island nations. How wonderful it is for this area's signature cuisine to be so acknowledged, even if the sarcasm is unmistakable.

But Ferretti's amused complaint misses its mark. "Floribbean Cuisine" -- though representative of much of this region's cooking -- is not South Florida's current dining trend, despite its new national status. The fare that has grabbed our attention this year -- Mediterranean cuisine -- is from the Old World, not the new one. Established restaurants, such as Caffe Baci, have revised their menus in favor of it. And in some of Miami's recently opened eateries, like Ocean Drive's Mediterraneo Restaurant, this ancient style of cooking is making quite a comeback.

Serving this cuisine could prove lucrative. Because its emphasis lies on simple meals of grilled meats, fish, pasta, and vegetables, Mediterranean cuisine reflects the popular interest in eating healthy meals. It limits fats but doesn't deny us flavor. And because the Mediterranean Sea is enclosed by southern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa, a restaurant that presents Mediterranean cuisine feels free to draw on any of these regions' influences, thereby creating a varied but thematically sound menu.

Mediterraneo is no exception. The menu ranges from pasta and pizza to moussaka and mixed kebab. It does, however, have a preponderance of Greek, Turkish, and Italian cuisines. This is largely because of owner Nichola Prassinos's background -- born in Athens, he trained for a career in hotel and restaurant management in Italy; his last position in the States was as manager for the Italian establishment I Tre Merli on South Beach. His chef, Camal Ahmed, born in Turkey, studied the culinary arts in Egypt and Greece. Between the two of them, they have the Mediterranean's southern and eastern shores covered.

It's almost impossible not to find something you like on this type of menu. It's also impossible not to find something you like about Mediterraneo. Located in the old Stars & Stripes Restaurant space in the Betsy Ross Hotel, at the north end of Ocean Drive, its cool tile floor beckons feet, hot from the beach and street. Cane-back and canvas-seat chairs downplay the formality of the white tablecloths; gauze draperies frame windows that stretch from the floor to the ceiling. A horseshoe bar dominates the small room. At night, the collection of mirrors on the walls captures the flickering from the corner candelabra, lighting the dining space.

Amid such casual elegance, Mediterraneo's cheap blue paper menus, some even dotted with food stains, look all wrong. The wine list, upon which the restaurant's logo and a quote from the Iliad are stamped in gold, makes a better impression. As the dinner menu evolves A more strictly Greek dishes are being planned by the management, in response to customer requests A one hopes that its printed version will take on an appearance that is, if not sophisticated, then at least as clean as its clientele.

I have no complaints, though, about the dishes on the menu; they present an upscale ethnicity I find as appealing as the restaurant itself. Appetizers, mostly Greek and Middle Eastern, are consistently well-prepared. The hummus was especially fine, the ingredients perfectly balanced. On one of our visits, it was served with toasted pita, which tasted homemade; on another, a basket of focaccia strips appeared alongside.

A wonderful counterpoint to the hummus was the outstanding spanakopita. Layers of papery thin phyllo dough enclosed fresh spinach and rich feta cheese, tricornered like George Washington's hat. The phyllo dough, too often dense and greasy, was light and flaky, the delicate, crisp texture a complement to the moist center.

For a meatier starter, "1001 nights" was a tasty combination of ground beef, veal, and Middle Eastern spices shaped into "fingers." I've tried this dish in many Greek restaurants and almost always it has been dry and terrible. At Mediterraneo, these meatballs, seared on the outside, actually retained pink centers; they were juicy and flavorful. They were served without heavy dipping sauces -- a wise decision. Undisguised, the meatballs were outstanding.

Fried calamari was also presented without the typical marinara condiment, and we were thrilled. These tender, battered nuggets -- the menu's only fried dish -- were delightful, enhanced by dabs of salt and lemon. Although deep-fried, they tasted of the mild squid and not the frying oil.

The antipasto Mediterraneo was a natural choice for my table of hearty eaters -- the dish offered generous samples of all of the aforementioned appetizers, with the addition of feta cheese. Listed on the menu for two, it was actually an adequate taster for four.

It's a shame the entrees don't have the option of a sampler -- it can be difficult to make a decision. The choices, consisting of homemade pastas and freshly grilled meats and fish, also include a wide variety of nightly specials. One special worth seeking is the risotto del giorno. An Italian rice dish that is slowly cooked until the grains have achieved a sticky, porridge-like consistency, risotto is then flavored with any number of ingredients. I tried a risotto with wild mushrooms, a delicious mixture of starchy, creamy tones and dark, earthy ones. I was impressed with the mastery of this large bowlful -- the rice retained a chewy separateness even as the short grains clung together.

Pasta dishes were also laudable for both quantity and quality. Maccheroncini Byzantina was made of long, homemade tubes of pasta -- the kind found in, say, Chef Boy-Ar-Dee's beefaroni, though Mediterraneo's was infinitely better, of course. Sauteed with ground veal and shiitake mushrooms, the pasta was left bare of added sauces but not dry, flavored with just a touch of fruity olive oil and a dash of red wine. The lack of a smothering sauce -- a theme throughout the meal -- allowed the veal and mushrooms to flavor the dish.

My favorite pasta dish was the enormous serving of integrale al vegetali, whole wheat spaghetti with fresh vegetables. A julienne of zucchini, yellow squash, and carrots was sauteed with a light olive oil and a sprinkling of chopped tomatoes and green peas, then threaded through the pasta. Once again, the ingredients of the dish were permitted to function as the sauce itself.

We also tried the grilled lamb chops, fragrant, hearty cuts of meat that had been prepared simply with fresh herbs. Greek cuisine is known for its excellent preparations of lamb, and Mediterraneo did not let us down.

In fact, the experience implied by the restaurant's name -- a multicultural tasting you don't need to fly to the Riviera for -- was in every way fulfilled. If you're looking for a sophisticated, relaxing celebration of the senses, conducted at the water's edge, and if you consider that South Beach has long been known as the "American Riviera" -- another label Athen Mediterraneo is the natural choice.


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