From virtually my first stroll down Ocean Drive in the early Nineties, it was apparent that one of the main foreign languages being spoken was Italian, and the stroll back up Collins and Washington avenues, past designer emporiums, made it immediately clear where all the Italian visitors were outfitting themselves.
What wasn't so clear, even after several years of sampling SoBe's Italian eateries, was where these Italians were eating. My best guess was nowhere, because no one could possibly eat and fit into those outfits. Anyway, though the area seemed to have even more Italian restaurants than sushi bars, the specialties seemed to be in the form of tabletop dancing rather than food. Certainly there were none of Italy's signature simple yet perfect, sun-intensified fresh fish and vegetable flavors I'd come to love -- though this, again, was a puzzle, given South Florida's seacoast and the sun-drenched fruit- and vegetable-bearing soil.
When I first visually checked out Specchio, the small but sleek space definitely looked more smart South Beach-style Italian (it's actually located about 100 blocks "uptown," in Surfside) than traditional Italian. And the Spanish speaker answering Specchio's phone, who could not manage enough English to take a reservation (or find anyone in the restaurant who could), didn't seem a particularly promising sign to seekers of an authentic Italian-dining experience. Additionally the menu, a collection of the usual carpaccios and other standards, held no surprises, except in the far righthand column: At $4 to $9 per starter, $9 to $12 per pasta, the highest-ticket meat and seafood entrées under $17, and many good bottles of wine for $20 to $30, Specchio's prices were anything but Ocean Drive.
And modest prices were only the first surprise. Specchio brought back the authentic all-around Italian-dining experience far more evocatively and enjoyably than almost any other Italian eatery this side of the Atlantic.
Our server started us off by talking us through our wine order. Or, rather, gesturing us through; my tentative inquiry about whether a Vernaccia di San Gimignano (a sentimental favorite from a former trip) might be as satisfying as a Gavi di Gavi brought forth a display of heartfelt, heart-clutching body-language drama such as I hadn't seen since I mistakenly asked an Italian Riviera pasta maker to compare her wares to those available over the border in France.
"But it is -- the Gavi di Gavi! It is -- the best! It is." He threw his head back, kissing his fingers to the heavens. It is -- impossible to order anything else. It was a good choice, too. There are many Gavi wines, but only those made within the commune of Gavi Ligure, where the Cortese grapes are supposedly at their best, are entitled to call themselves Gavi di Gavi, like the special that was replacing Specchio's regularly listed Gavi that night. While not especially complex, the characteristically straw-yellow wine demonstrated a delicate balance of crisp dryness and fresh fruit that was ideal for a summer meal.
Among Specchio's dozen starters, both carpaccios were terrific. Carpaccio di salmone featured fresh, sashimi-quality salmon, dressed with just enough lemon and excellent quality olive oil. Carpaccio al palmito was even tastier: lean raw beef sliced thin enough for delicacy but not so thin, as at many Miami restaurants, as to lose all firmness of texture. The latter carpaccio came drizzled with the same good oil, generous slices of imported Parmesan, and -- something a bit different -- bracingly crisp hearts of palm.
Grilled vegetables in most U.S. restaurants tend to be pleasant enough as a side but nothing in themselves to write home about. This is in marked contrast to Southern Italy (the boot's foot, plus Sicily), where it's hard to resist making a whole meal of the varied vegetable antipasto tables one finds in even the smallest spots. Specchio's grigliata di vegetali wasn't in quite that league but was still scrumptious, mainly because, for a change, the grilled vegetables (which vary according to season and on our plate included eggplant, zucchini, onion, peppers, and one huge beefsteak tomato) actually tasted grilled instead of merely looking like it. Plentiful Parmigiano supplemented the oil-drizzled, flame-charred flavor. And in quantity the plate was more than generous enough to serve as a lovely light "money-saving main dish."
Best appetizer, though, was the most unlikely: a zuppa del giorno of pea. Period. The soup managed to convey full-flavored excitement without a butter and cream overload, smoked hamhocks, or any other normal pea soup flavor enhancement -- or distraction. Specchio's roughly puréed fresh, not dried, pea soup was both essence of pea and the essence of Italy.
Entrées were equally good. Linguine alle vongole featured a sauce that was worlds away from the watery, oversalted stuff one often finds on American pasta with clams. It was light but substantial enough to lightly coat the pasta strands; white wine, parsley, garlic, and oil were all evident and balanced. And the billed baby clams, while not tiny Venetian clams, were truly tender instead of macho Manila bruisers.
Scaloppine di vitello ai funghi was not quite love at first bite, since its thin outer edges were sautéed to dryness. Most of the meat, however, proved moist and fork-tender. The dish was finished with an elegant, sufficiently salted wine sauce packed with shiitake slices rather than relatively characterless button mushrooms.
Two specials were superior. Fresh snapper (when I asked how fresh, our waiter rolled his eyes to one side, and sighed in gentle private orgasm -- which proved to mean fresher than anything I've recently had in any specialized fish house) came perfectly cooked, complemented by a flavorful but not overwhelming Italian take on beurre blanc, with capers and lemon. And large homemade ravioli, almost translucent yet al dente skins stuffed with rich ricotta and topped with a full-of-finesse shiitake/asparagus cream sauce, was the kind of dish that makes a restaurant reviewer feel sorry she has to share.
For dessert we tried a lovely light, not-too-sweet, ricotta cheesecake, a refreshing firm poached pear with vanilla gelato, and a much less cloying than usual tiramisu -- the last of which our expansive waiter brought, with a smile and a flourish, on the house. Unfortunately we had to rush a bit through these treats; Surfside may indeed have more authentically Italian-style food than South Beach, but the town's main-street parking meters are authentically SoBe-style all the way, consuming quarters twenty-four hours a day, one every fifteen minutes, with an annoying two-hour limit. And this was too bad, because Specchio is not a typical, eat-and-run-in-an-hour, American restaurant. It's the kind of classic café one finds in every Italian town square, where the casual friendliness could easily seduce one into staying, sipping, and supping all night.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Miami dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.