Timon Balloo doesn't want to dazzle you. At Bocce Bar, he cooks things simply -- braising duck legs in stock before plunging them into a pan with orecchiette, squash, and Parmesan. They are finished in a sauce that's thick enough to coat a wooden spoon and tastes of sage and thyme. They are unencumbered by trickery. This is the kind of recipe you'd tear from a favorite magazine, a dish you'd serve at a fancy dinner party at home.
Balloo's approach to Italian cuisine is understated, not rustic. Yes, he went to Italy twice and watched grandmothers cook in Florence, Pisa, and Sicily. But at this midtown Miami restaurant, he extols the effortlessness of the cuisine. He finishes raw tuna with a sprig of lavender. He garnishes octopus with red sorrel. It's familiar and good-looking, so you might ogle your pasta before reaching for your fork.
On this manicured block of NE First Avenue, executive chef Balloo oversees two restaurants: Sugarcane Raw Bar & Grill and Bocce Bar, which are owned by the group Samba Brands. When it debuted in 2010, Sugarcane was a restaurant of the moment. Today, the menu employs pig ears, foie gras, and fish with miso or ponzu. There's an oyster bar, an herb-sloshed cocktail program, and a Japanese robata grill where chicken yakitori cook over binchotan coals. Sugarcane's success made clear that midtown would become a food destination.
Four years later, Bocce Bar is equally pioneering. The kitchen, aided by Padua-native chef de cuisine Tommaso Furlanetto, forgoes tonkotsu broths and instead embraces subtlety: a sticky Taleggio cheese paired with crisp, salted chestnuts; the dainty bounce between bitter and sweet in a grilled treviso with fig balsamic and pecorino; and the woodsy aroma of rosemary crammed bouquet-like into tiny tabletop vases. Vegetables get as much play as meats. There's a focus on herbs and nuts. So, in many ways, Bocce Bar is a restaurant of the moment.
The setting reflects a new sensibility, one that steps away from bourbon drinks in Mason jars and leaps toward aged Negronis in rocks glasses. There are bulky mirrors, mismatched ceramic tiles, and wooden park benches that replace some dining chairs. Outside, a bocce court is surrounded by foliage and, most of the time, a drunken din. By the brightly lit bar, crowds gather around bottles of Aperol and Campari. At this airy space, even the bubbly waiters in suspenders are imported from Italy.
Balloo's branzino, however, comes from Greece. The muted, pale fish is roasted slowly in the wood-burning oven and plopped atop sautéed cipollini onions, fennel, and Calabrian chiles. At first, the fish soothes with a wave of richness, its flesh and vegetables woven with a sumptuous thread of butter. But a simple shaved fennel and citrus salad brightens the dish. It is both delicate and decadent -- an effect that Balloo achieves often at Bocce Bar.
Though his creamy polenta comes crowned with a poached egg, it is still enjoyable on the warmest of nights. It helps, of course, that the polenta is offset by bitter bursts of rapini. The cannelloni achieves a similar balance. On the menu, you can try this plump, cigar-shaped pasta crammed with wild mushrooms and Taleggio cheese. Occasionally, though, it is offered as a special with braised Florida rabbit and spinach. During one of our visits, a long, thin bone snuck into the filling. This blunder is forgivable -- only because the cannelloni is so delectable.
The same can be said for the octopus, which is braised and then finished on the hot grill. Served with a velvety chickpea purée, the dish is garnished with blossoms and a warm caper and olive vinaigrette. Try it with roasted cauliflower. Balloo proffers the vegetable with a raisin and pine nut gremolata. Together, they make a wonderful, warm meal.
There are times when Bocce Bar's unfussy style could benefit from some extra effort. A honey-roasted lamb shank is cooked sous-vide for 14 hours with herbs and olive oil. The result is an aggressive lamb flavor, which could be improved with more salt and fewer bulky hunks of fat.
What's more, on weekends, the service can be flustered and frenzied. On a recent Saturday, a single server was responsible for too many occupied tables, and the hostess had to chip in and deliver clean plates and cutlery. Other nights, however, you might be charmed by the jovial attention. "You're going from one Italian to another!" our server joked after his co-worker bounced to another table.
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Either way, the spirit here is always lively. Couples fill the lusty dining room as they sip from glasses of Barolo and share platters of prosciutto, porchetta di testa, and buffalo ricotta with truffles. And while nearby restaurants sit empty at times, Bocce Bar is consistently busy. It is, after all, headed by Timon Balloo, a talented chef who's often grinning while working the line.
His enthusiasm is understandable. This is Bocce Bar's moment, and Balloo has given Miami yet another darling in midtown.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.