Looking to plan your next trip to Italy? Just ask one of the enthusiastic waiters at Sapore di Mare, Italian for "Taste of the Sea," for recommendations. With the exception of one international trainee, every staff member at the quaint Coconut Grove eatery hails from Italia. "Tell them Angelo sent you," a server says after suggesting a visit to his family's restaurant in Florence.
Angelo's English isn't perfect, but he and the rest of the team at Sapore are fluent in Italian hospitality. Regulars are greeted like family, and food-related queries are answered honestly. And in true Italian fashion — if you've overordered — your server will be the first to say è troppo eh.
"People think we are acting too much Italian, but I think the secret of our success is that we are very Italian," explains proud Florentine and general manager Veronica Paderni. Veronica's brother, Matteo Paderni, and his wife, Giorgia Calabrese, opened Sapore in late 2014 on Grand Avenue in the Grove. They were attracted by the area's prodigious energy.
If their names sound familiar, it's because the couple has been charming patrons for quite some time. In 2009, they started a tapas bar in South Beach named Gusto Vino & Caffè. Two years later, they sold that business to make way for their next venture, Ni.Do Caffè on the Upper Eastside. Ni.Do was and still is a local favorite, but the pair jumped ship after receiving an offer on the Italian eatery that they couldn't refuse.
The Padernis' third act concentrates on seafood-centric dishes from Campania, a region in southwestern Italy that includes Naples and the Amalfi Coast. All of the fish is sourced exclusively from the Mediterranean, and Sapore is known for its crudo selection.
Begin with the branzino carpaccio, which is made using only the fillets of Italian sea bass. The raw white fish — enhanced with Tuscan olive oil, lemon juice, and ground pepper — comes arranged atop slivers of crunchy green apple. To give the bass some oomph, a waiter brings out a selection of exotic salts. There's a lot to like about this light and fresh starter.
Baby octopus isn't frequently seen on Miami menus, but here the mollusk is steamed for four hours and served in a rich tomato sauce with capers and black olives. The polipetti alla Luciana is a signature Neapolitan dish, Paderni says. But unfortunately, Sapore's rendition features a sauce with an off-putting aftertaste and octopus that's too chewy.
Though Sapore offers vegetarian options, everything about the place encourages the consumption of seafood. Indeed, the small, narrow eatery could easily be mistaken for the interior of a yacht. Picture mahogany tables, navy and white leather chairs, nautical accents, and light bulbs dangling from thick sailors' knots. Giorgia Calabrese grew up on the Amalfi Coast and wanted the place to have an authentic feel. She even traveled to Vietri sul Mare to source handmade ceramic dinnerware.
If, however, you choose to veer off the seafood path, try the tagliolini cacio e pepe. "Cacio" is the Roman word for Pecorino-Romano, a sheep's-milk cheese that's been produced in the region since ancient times. Fortunately, Sapore executive chef Valter Mancini not only specializes in homemade pastas, but also is from Rome.
To give the dish a profound cheesy flavor, the tagliolini is tossed tableside inside a wheel of aged Pecorino imported from Italy's capital. The cost is $24. Throw in another $15, and black truffles from Alba will be added to the already-decadent primi. It's good, very good. The same goes for Mancini's silky tagliolini paired with aromatic mushrooms and Italian clams.
The Perdinis say they invited the chef to dine at their restaurant and he liked it so much he left Rome to run the kitchen at Sapore. Mancini has since become part of the family. Each day he and Matteo create new specials to keep repeat customers happy.
During a recent visit, the catch of the day was St. Peter, AKA John Dory, a white fish with a firm, flaky texture. It's considered a delicacy and is a staple at many fine-dining establishments. That said, excitement waned at the first bite of Sapore's dry and flavorless grilled fillet of San Pietro. It's one thing to pay $45 for a hard-to-get, expertly prepared piece of fish, but quite another to lay out so much cash for a tiny, lackluster portion.
And though a swordfish fillet was better prepared, it was proffered with the same undesirable tomato sauce as the baby octopus. What's more, the accompanying mussels and clams didn't taste fresh, which is puzzling considering the clams served with the mushroom tagliolini were excellent.
Desserts change daily. Hope for the tiramisu semifreddo. The half-frozen treat boasts a crunchy dark-chocolate exterior and a tiramisu-flavored center. Its texture is part ice cream and part frozen mousse. It's glorious.
Sapore di Mare has achieved the kind of convivial atmosphere that attracts the most enviable clientele: year-round locals who've come to embrace the eatery as their second kitchen. They know the Padernis, and the restaurant's crew remembers not only visitors' names but also their order from the last visit. This feat is all too rare in Miami.
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There's so much to like about this place, yet there's still work to be done if Sapore di Mare intends to turn those who live outside the neighborhood into regulars. Not that the restaurant really needs them.
Sapore di Mare
3111 Grand Ave., Coconut Grove; 305-476-8292; saporedimaremiami.com. Lunch daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner daily 5 to 11 p.m.
Branzino carpaccio $20
Baby octopus $20
Tagliolini cacio e pepe $24
Tagliolini with clams and mushrooms $27
St. Peter $45
Tiramisu semifreddo $14