Restaurant Reviews

At Navé, Erba, and Gregory's Diner, Chefs Make a Point With Pasta

Navé's tagliatelle with veal and pork bolognese.
Photo courtesy of Navé
Navé's tagliatelle with veal and pork bolognese.
Diets come and go. In the case of enthusiastic eaters, there's more going than coming. Yet today's "it" regimen, the ketogenic diet — a reincarnation of the low-carb Atkins diet, which was a reincarnation of the fasting programs that medical researchers in the early 20th Century found could prevent epileptic seizures — is not, thankfully, a concern for a crop of Miami chefs who in recent months opened a slate of restaurants specializing in fresh pasta simply prepared with minimal fuss and ingredients.

Such delights have long been available at places like Macchialina, Scarpetta at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, and the hidden-in-plain-sight Pane e Vino near Española Way. Now there is an ever-changing lineup of pastas at Luciana Giangrandi and Alex Meyer's Little Haiti hideout, Boia De. One can also find starchy sustenance downtown at Carey Hynes and Will Thompson's Jaguar Sun.

New spots such as Michael Beltran's Navé (3540 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove) — helmed by Justin Flit of Midtown's dearly departed Proof — and Niven Patel and Tim Piazza's Erba (8975 SW 72nd Pl., Miami) are also plying piles of pristine pasta. Roel Alcudia at Gregory's Diner (7301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami), the sister of the Design District's Mandolin Aegean Bistro, offers an array of fresh noodles alongside a roster of nostalgic diner fare.

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Fettuccine and clams at Gregory's Diner.
Image courtesy Gregory's Diner/Gesi Schilling
Cities across the nation have long echoed with grumbles about an overabundance of Italian restaurants; however, many chefs' recent obsession with something seemingly simple and delightful is far more than another trend. It's a signal of a new level of commitment and dedication to both guests and the young, up-and-coming cooks who serve them. If it is a trend, may all those that follow continue on the path of eschewing gimmicks for flavor and craftsmanship.

"For me and Tim [Piazza], making pasta is just very soothing," Erba's Patel says. The menu at their Downtown Dadeland spot is nearly half fresh pastas, along with simple small plates driven by Italian sensibilities and what's being harvested at Patel's Homestead farms.

The richness of ricotta-filled agnolotti ($18) is mimicked by a velvety daub of red kuri squash and brightened with rosemary and shaved pecorino Romano cheese. Toothsome bucatini ($17) on a recent night was glossed with salty-savory anchovy butter and spruced up with preserved lemon, chives, and a bit of crunch thanks to a scattering of toasted breadcrumbs and the cured fish roe bottarga.

"For us, it's a lot of fun to work with our hands, and after a time, you find creating doughs and creating pasta is very therapeutic," Patel says.

The calming, ritualistic aspect of making fresh pasta is a common refrain among chefs. In the noisy, hot, and fast-paced world of professional kitchens, extruding fresh spaghetti, cutting gnocchi, or rolling cavatelli seems to be a rare kind of meditation that many cooks find soothing and productive at the same time.

"I can serve really beautiful fresh pasta and I know someone can look at the bowl and see value," Hynes of Jaguar Sun says. "My cooks will learn something they can take with them for the rest of their lives: I can do it in my small kitchen, and it makes everyone happy."
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Rigatoni with pesto.
Photo courtesy of Navé
It shows in the downtown Miami haunt's agnolotti ($23), which burst with the sweetness of corn and the sea. Each supple little purse is filled with corn, shallots, leeks, and a touch of white wine that's then tossed in a saffron-perfumed crab stock with a bit of butter, smoky Urfa peppers, and shaved almonds that help thicken the sauce into a comforting, blue-crab-flecked pleasure that stays with you long after your plate is cleared and your drink is drained.

There's a similar measure of suave richness in Coconut Grove at Beltran's Navé, where spirals of fusilli ($18) are enveloped in an ultrasavory chicken liver ragu that boasts a meaty richness, sweetness, and acidity one could compare to a lost city of gold.

The eight pasta dishes offered here are only part of Navé's coastal Italian motif, but their importance is underlined by the glass-walled pasta room that sits in the center of the restaurant. So though your eyes might be drawn to the $148 seafood plateau or the tuna "frites" with au poivre sauce, it's the lone cook working diligently in that room, crimping ravioli and slicing off short stubs of rigatoni, that's most alluring.

"When we decided we were going to do pasta and seafood, we started thinking about this room right away," the 35-year-old chef/partner Flit says. "For me, after years of cooking and eating pasta, I can tell the difference between store-bought and even good dried pasta right away, and I think it's something we had to do in order to meet our standards and the new standards you're seeing."

The rigatoni ($15) boasts a textbook pesto rich with pecorino. There's also boar ravioli ($22) striped with pale-yellow and cocoa-tinted doughs packing tender braised meat splashed with red wine jus and crowned with whipped kabocha squash.

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Erba's bucatini with anchovy butter, bottarga, breadcrumbs and lemon.
Zachary Fagenson
Such delights should, in fact, be common.

"Pasta is an automatic in every place I work in. It's always going to have its place on the menu," says Alcudia of the recently opened Gregory's Diner. "Pasta, to me, evokes that sense of comfort, of home-cooking your grandma's stuff."

And few dishes do it better than Gregory's fettuccine and clams, rife with the aromas of white wine and fresh parsley, all clinging to perfectly al dente noodles.

Of course, getting it right day in and day out requires constant effort. Like bread, fresh pasta is susceptible to changes in weather and humidity, and requires a keen eye and a practiced hand to be done right. But with so many places now dealing in the stuff, there is also a new group of young cooks learning to think in such exacting terms, and they will take these experiences with them to yet-to-be-opened restaurants down the road.

So what's the only thing wrong with this the fresh-pasta trend, if you want to call it that? It's the unfortunate task of pitting all of these places against one another in an effort to decide where to eat tonight. No matter which one you choose, you can rest easy knowing pasta is finally being done right.