Ralph Pagano is not exactly a wallflower. The chef, who can be heard regularly on the Paul and Young Ron Show on Big 105.9, has been on multiple television cooking shows, is an outspoken lover of the "ponies", and shows no shame in his love for a good mojito and a good time.
So when walking into Alba, his new endeavor at Sole on the Ocean resort in Sunny Isles Beach, I wasn't shocked at all to see an extra-large coffee table book of The Godfather serving as centerpiece at the chef's table, which (also unsurprising) was graced by a picture of Sophia Loren, Italy's most famous creation after the Sistine Chapel and pizza. That's Pagano creating his own world, like with the framed playing cards from casinos around the globe -- one card representing each country he's been to.
- Ralph Pagano to Open Alba at Sole on the Ocean
"I'm not finished here." the chef/owner tells me. "I'm putting up some of my favorite sayings, like the one the Vatican said about not condoning cloning except in Sophia Loren's case, they may make an exception."
(Note: Google "Sophia Loren" and "The Vatican" and, indeed, you'll find that Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State did say, "The church is opposed to cloning, but an exception might be made in the case of Sophia Loren.").
In fact, everything about Alba reflect's Pagano's spirit and Italian-American roots from the music (a tuneful diet of Sinatra, Martin, and Four Seasons) to the menu, which is a tribute to old-school cuisine like I grew up with in Brooklyn, mixed in with some fusion fare and plenty of seafood.
We went in the evening, but I would go back for a late lunch, if only to sit outside on the oversized terrace directly facing the nearly-pristine stretch of waterfront on the northernmost part of Miami-Dade's shoreline.
Candles and oversized dark wood tables give the room mood, as Pagano works the tables filled with Russian flight attendants, a group of young guys out to fortify before heading out for a night of clubbing, and a family celebrating with a holiday meal. The back room is filled with a birthday party group.
It's clear that this restaurant will serve as an expatriate hangout for many northeast transplants and snowbirds in Aventura and Sunny Isles, hungry for home-style cooking, and Pagano's sassy hospitality.
Clams Oreganata "Sheepshead Bay Style", butter and lemon soaked breadcrumbs play well with the clam's natural sweetness ($12). They did remind me of the clam shacks lined along the docks of that particular part of Brooklyn.
No home-cooked Italian meal exists without roasted peppers ($5).
Wagyu sliders may not be Italian, but they're juicy and rich, served with caramelized onions and black truffle aioli ($12).
Catch of the day is served fra diovolo style, with a spicy tomato sauce, fresh mussels, clams, and calamari. Today's catch was mahi, but, as the menu says, "We're always looking for square grouper." Only note to this dish: I would have loved some pasta or warm fresh bread to sop up the tangy sauce.
Chicken scarpariello "Vinny D style" is a bone-in chicken served with sausage, mushrooms, and cherry peppers ($23).
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Buccatini carbonara may be "last meal" worthy. Home made buccatini is topped with pancetta, caramelized onions, and a runny poached egg. Break yolk into steaming pasta and go to a happy place ($21).
Sauteed mushrooms for the table are served in the pot ($6). Other sharable sides include truffle fries, zucchini frito, polenta gorgonzola, and eggplant parmigiano.