La Leggenda Pizzeria
Christine Michelle Photography

To say that Giovanni Gagliardi is obsessed with pizza is like saying Wynton Marsalis dabbles in the trumpet. The entire life of this stout, half-bearded pizzaiolo from Naples revolves around perfect pies. He was born into a family famous for a roving truck that dished out first-rate versions of the stuff. He's won multiple world championships, and an armory of awards litters his small South Beach spot. The world's famed Neapolitan flour companies, which produce the only flour acceptable for making true Neapolitan pies according to European Union standards, fly him around the globe to stretch, dress, and bake on their behalf. Still don't believe it? Go ahead and visit for yourself and watch Gagliardi closely. Every now and then you'll see him snip a pie's crust with a pair of scissors to ensure it's puffing up and crisping just right.

Jr's Gourmet Burgers
Courtesy of Jr's Gourmet Burgers

There are secret weapons in the quest for umami, the so-called fifth flavor, which is a combination of savoriness and deep satisfaction. The wrongly maligned MSG is one of them. There's also tomato paste, anchovies, and the Japanese seaweed and fish broth called dashi. Chief among the ingredients, however, is mushrooms. Vegetarians for years have relied on fungi for meaty satisfaction. Jr's, the humble Miami Springs restaurant that in 2015 finally got some long-overdue recognition when it won the South Beach Wine & Food Festival's Burger Bash, deploys a panoply of everything from button mushrooms to shiitake, porcini, and oysters on its wild mushroom burger ($8.85/$9.99) to create an umami bomb tucked in a bun. Take in each bite with a pull of Swiss cheese and a few strands of sautéed onions, and you have all the makings of midday ecstasy.

Photo by Carla Torres

How this long-standing Little Havana bakery turns out so many of these stubby little fingers of oceanic delight is a mystery. Arrive early on a weekday, and countless dozens of croquetas de bacalao emerge in a constant stream from the back of the compact space. What makes Pastelmania's salt cod croquetas ($1) so addictive is their creamy, unctuous core made of whipped codfish that boasts an almost cloud-like texture. Once it's encased in breading and fried until delightfully crisp, you might find yourself turning your car around on the way to work to fetch a dozen — no, two dozen — more.

Best Pastelito
Photo by Zachary Fagenson

Gilbert's began in 1962 after the family bakery in Camagüey was seized by the Castro government. Family members fled to Miami to rebuild, starting with a place on Douglas Road at SW 16th Street. Today the ship is steered by Gilberto Arriaza Jr., who oversees a vast production operation that keeps the streets flooded with croquetas and guava-packed pastries. Yet it's true strength, and Arriaza's passion, is keeping alive the culinary traditions of Cuba that have faded as the country has sunk into economic hardship and the exile community has built a new life. Case in point is the menesier de pollo ($1.25). A flaky pie-dough-style crust is folded around shredded chicken prepared like ropa vieja. Once out of the oven, it's cooled, and a quick slick of sugar syrup gives it a chrome-like shine. Its depth and complexity, combined with an addictive sweet-savory flavor combination, make it a pastry like no other.

Doggi's Arepa Bar
Photo by Maureen Aimee Mariano

Why, you ask, is the city's favorite arepa spot named for a misspelling of Canis lupus familiaris? In 2010, matriarch Yoleida Galiano and her sons Carlos and Giovanni Esteves purchased a small food cart and served wieners, sodas, and the famous papelón con limón, a traditional Venezuelan beverage made with sugarcane and lemon. After runaway success, the trio opened a restaurant on Coral Way with the same name. Today they dish out dozens of varieties of Venezuelan arepas from multiple locations, including a food truck in Wynwood (305-434-2241). Try the domino ($8.99), plumped up with black beans and rice, or the reina pepiada ($7.99), that oh-so-addictive combination of chicken salad and avocado. You might imagine this was what manna from Heaven looked and tasted like. The outside is freckled with char marks, hinting at the greatness to come: unparalleled crispness that gives way to a tender, hot, steamy, fluffy, almost biscuit-like interior of white cornmeal that's soft and delicate enough to serve as pillow stuffing. It's no wonder new locations are popping up across town.

Best Frita
Courtesy of Cuban Guys

The most Cuban sandwich of all isn't the eponymous one. It's the frita. And though Miamians will argue their favorite frita spots all day, there's one that does the frita like no one else. Sometimes you want it quick and cheap, and that's where Cuban Guys comes in. With four locations from Hialeah to Kendall (and one opening soon in Miramar), they know what makes this sandwich so sensational, perfecting it in fast-food form for $3.99 a pop (and for only $3 Tuesdays after 4 p.m.). Let's start with the bread: A fresh-baked Cuban bun displays the restaurant's logo stamped on top. The beef, seasoned to perfection, is never frozen. It's hand-shaped into patties each day. And those crisp potato sticks are cut and fried in-house, so they're never soggy. Make it a deluxe with mayo, tomato, and lettuce. And if one frita isn't enough, you can always go for the doble ($4.99). Piled high with double the ingredients, it's one of the sexiest — and cheapest — fritas in the 305.

Atlantic Pho
Courtesy of Atlantic Pho

It's easy to find a good bowl of pho, but to locate one that makes you feel as if you are sitting on a stool in Saigon is incredibly difficult. Atlantic Pho is one of the few places in South Florida that produces steaming bowls of Vietnamese excellence. Priced between $6.95 and $9.95, the stuff comes in standard varieties: chicken, beef, combination, seafood, veggie, or any mix of those. In each one, the family recipe, derived from Da Nang, Vietnam, and still in use there, separates the dish from the pack. The rice noodles are cooked just right, the bean sprouts and mint leaves are fresh, and the broth could be a standalone soup in most upscale restaurants. It's pho-tastic.

Best Sandwich Shop

For decades, Miami has been a dominant force in the sandwich universe. Sure, New York and Chicago have claims, but the Magic City is one of few where the sandwich plays an integral part of life. Though Cuban sandwiches have long reigned supreme, a few years ago the intensely flavorful sandwiches of Peru appeared on the scene, and life has never been this same. The family-owned Mr. & Mrs. Bun in West Kendall specializes in what it calls panceta en caja china ($11.99). Pork belly is cooked in a special roasting box until the meat's absurdly tender fat and flesh are encased in a crisp crust. It's tucked inside a fluffy house-made bun with crisp sweet potato coins, crunchy lettuce, and a tangy mayonnaise. In Peru, these sandwiches are popular as drunk food, but there's no need for booze to make this version the best.

El Pimiento
Photo by Jacob Katel

Since 2006, the Miami Lakes restaurant El Pimiento has offered a sprawling menu of small plates — the kind you'd see served on the streets of Madrid — for a fraction of the price you'd pay at an American tapas bar. Prices range from $6 to $17 for most small plates. If you're the type to be overwhelmed by too many options — there are more than 40 tapas and 60 dishes in all — the small staff that runs the 12-table restaurant is happy to help you navigate chef/owner Juan Carlos de la Cruz's offerings, which range from hot and cold selections to vegetable, meat, and seafood plates. There are traditional picks such as the Spanish anchovies marinated in vinegar and olive oil known as boquerones ($11) as well as tortilla española, a Spanish-style potato and onion omelet ($7). For a truly indulgent evening, imbibe with a bottle of wine. The walls here are lined with rows of options sourced from Spain, Chile, and Argentina. Don't feel bashful about perusing them yourself, although the staff can recommend favorites.

Best French Fries

At Pincho Factory, you have to order the epic tostón burger: a beef patty, jack cheese, and a dollop of cilantro sauce presented between two crisp fried plantains. But every burger needs a companion, and Pincho Factory offers several. Try a batch of fried plantains ($3.49), or go for an order of the classic French fries, cooked to a golden brown for a nice outer crunch. Or take it up a notch with bacon cheddar ranch fries served with ranch dressing. There are also the Cajun fries, topped with grilled onions, seasoning, and Pincho's top-secret pink sauce. Or check out the bite-size sweet potato tots. They're all under five bucks each.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®