Those of you who love it may start mourning its loss of solo status now. Those of you who hate it, consider yourselves warned. South Beach is being copied. Or more accurately, the philosophy of if it's still standing, tear it down has prompted other local beach neighborhoods to renovate a la South Beach, in hopes of replicating that playground's prosperity.
Rabid redevelopment alone does not indicate a SoBe-style epidemic. But the gay clubs and trendy restaurants that move in certainly do emulate South Beach enterprises. For instance, Tutto Matto, a 240-seat caffe italianissimo reminiscent of the legendary Mezzanotte, opened on upper Collins Avenue at the end of November. And not only does the restaurant's simply styled, bare-looking room remind you of early South Beach Revival decor, but general manager Romeo Fortunato actually refers to its location as "North Beach." (Though most of us know this region as Sunny Isles, hopeful hipsters looking to cash in on a catchy name have dubbed it North Beach, a nickname that these days seems to apply to any beachside enclave north of the Betsy Ross Hotel.)
It's no coincidence that Tutto Matto resembles pioneer South Beach eateries. The same crew that put together i Paparazzi, one of Ocean Drive's first sidewalk trattorias and Mulberry Street Cafe, also on South Beach, is responsible for this site A once again, they wanted to get in on the ground floor. And like the fare at most restaurants (including i Paparazzi) on Ocean Drive, the dishes at Tutto Matto range from excellent to less than mediocre.
In general, appetizers showed the most consistency. My favorite was a special one evening, three one-inch-thick sausage rounds covered with a savory stew of beans and tomatoes. The sausage filling was chunky, not ground, and tasted deliciously homemade. Our waiter realized intuitively that we were sharing and was kind enough to split this dish into two separate plates at the table.
He also had asked the kitchen to divide our l'insalata italiana, a bittersweet melange of radicchio, endive, arugula, and juicy tomato, covered with fragrant but minimal olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I would have preferred a slightly more generous dousing; still, I'd rather have my salad underdressed than soggy. A bit of freshly ground pepper compensated somewhat for the lack of dressing.
On another evening, we shared a bowl of mussels and baby calamari. Prepared in a broth with garlic and fresh tomatoes and basil, this light starter was a natural with Tutto Matto's crusty homemade bread. Redolent with yeast, the sliced bread was wonderfully soft inside and chewy outside. It was served without butter, which made dipping an appropriate option; like the Italians, I dunk my bread in wine.
A tricolore di pesce carpaccio was a poor companion that night for the mussels and calamari. Whisper-thin medallions of tuna, salmon, and grouper fanned prettily on the plate over dollops of a sun-dried tomato paste and a pesto. Olive oil, lemon, and fresh chopped herbs were drizzled over the top. But the fish tasted mealy, too soft and warm (and even bland), despite what should have been rather exuberant flavorings.
On our first visit, a dinner entree of grouper -- the catch of the day -- served with fresh spinach and sun-dried tomatoes, was violently mistreated. A few leaves of sauteed spinach and two or three tomatoes dotted a fillet that was exceedingly tough, and so salty that it could have been preserved without refrigeration.
Likewise, a risotto ai frutti di mare was practically briny. Though the plate of firm, slightly soupy rice was plentiful and the sauce, with a touch of tomato, would have been very pleasant otherwise, this dish was difficult to eat. The shellfish -- shrimp, mussels, clams, and calamari -- may have been the culprit. Perhaps it had not been rinsed well enough or, as is sometimes the case, it may have been cooked directly in the rice without being boiled or steamed separately first. (Cooking shellfish separately allows for impurities such as pockets of sand or saltwater to be washed out of -- rather than into -- the sauce.)
We found this problem to be significant once again in a special, a seafood marinara served over linguine. A variety of shellfish dominated a huge pile of pasta. But the sauce was far too salty for us to enjoy the generous portion. Another pasta, however, the rigatoni ai funghi selvatici, was flavored with olive oil, parsley, and garlic, not the overwhelming salt. Made with meaty portobello mushrooms and chopped fresh tomatoes, the combination of textures was nicely handled.
At our second meal, we sampled two meat dishes. Veal scaloppine, sauteed with porcini mushrooms and a light red wine, had an extremely strong flavor, like that of mushroom gravy. The musky porcini, some of them soggy, overpowered the more delicately flavored veal, which was acceptably but not notably tender.
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Neither dry nor juicy, the duck breast on raspberry sauce was the equivalent to the veal. The skin and the layer of fat underneath had been removed, leaving a small breast sliced in half a dozen pieces on an unremarkable raspberry puree. What was remarkable, however, was the fact that the same side dishes accompanied both entrees; as far as I'm concerned, the failure to individualize plates according to the prevalent flavors already on them is a major blot on the credibility of any kitchen that considers itself "upscale." The broiled rosemary potato and sauteed zucchini were fine, if uninspired; the mound of polenta topped with tangy marinara was an oddity. Polenta's dominating flavors -- corn, cheese, and tomato -- went terribly with the raspberry sauce on the duck and the porcini-wine gravy that flavored the veal.
Despite its uneven cuisine, Tutto Matto seems to be flourishing. Given the establishment's relationship to i Paparazzi, I wasn't surprised to see that some of the ploys that have been used in the long-lived South Beach restaurant have migrated north. For instance, some of the waiters speak with exaggerated accents, as if to lend an air of authenticity to the place. In addition, the restaurant, which faces busy Collins Avenue and is part of a strip mall in which an Eckerd features prominently, insists on a sidewalk cafe feel, seating 40 along a small stretch of pavement. And though I have yet to see musicians strumming and strolling among the tables, Tutto Matto does book acts -- Romeo Fortunato says you may even be lucky enough to catch the popular Gipsy Kings. One recent experience there included a lone guitarist who played to canned music. Bothersome but somehow requisite on South Beach, such antics seem more than a little foolish here.
Still, Tutto Matto varies significantly enough from i Paparazzi to make it a distinct, if not superior, dining experience. The menu has more reach and the kitchen (with the exception of the pastry chef, who commendably supplies all three restaurants) differs completely. Also, while both restaurants are under the same management, I found the staff at Tutto Matto to be particularly attentive -- North Beach" may have installed a South Beach eatery, but it has yet to take up an A-list attitude. I especially liked the harvest-print aprons the servers wore, adding a touch of Williams-Sonoma cheer to the otherwise cold decor.
In fact, the entire operation is far more sedate and family-oriented than I was led to believe from the restaurant's slogan, "Something a little crazy a little north of South Beach." The clientele included kids -- and I mean the real thing, not just those who are defined that way by their actions. Perhaps the answer for north-shore establishments is not to imitate South Beach eateries, which at the present time are spread too thin for the amount of trade they're receiving, but to discover their own identities. The welcome that greeted eaters of all ages may have been the real reason for Tutto Matto's impressive near-full houses during the recent holiday season, while South Beach remained, in comparison to recent years, dismally vacant.