The world's best pizza is found just outside Oliena, a dusty mountain town in central Sardinia. Pies there get flung into weathered wood-burning hearths and pulled out as thin, blistered crusts topped with crisp, papery potato slices; a drizzle of fruity olive oil; perfumed needles of fresh rosemary; and speckles of sea salt. That's it. The simple yet stunning balance of flavors sets a standard that has not yet been eclipsed — for my wife and me, that is. I'm not claiming the rest of the world is in agreement.
So three years ago, when Sardinian Pietro Vardeu and business partner Tony Gallo opened Sardinia Enoteca Ristorante, we hoped potato pizza would pop from its wood-burning hearth. No such luck. This past July, when Pietro and Tony premiered Casale Pizzeria/Mozzarella Bar next door to their still-thrilling Sardinia (in the Sunset Harbour section of South Beach), we were cautiously optimistic. And indeed, this menu sports a "Sagaponack" spud-studded pie, but the diced potatoes are scattered atop ricotta cheese, tomato sauce, and anchovies. Not quite what we were looking for. Still, there are 17 other potential toppings, all more enticing than the one just described.
Pizza is not what makes Casale a great place to eat. It doesn't even look like a pizzeria. The funky font of painted letters spelling the name out front appear to be leftover signage from a '60s beachcomber bar. And the interior bespeaks a handsome rustic comfort that soothes in the uncluttered, unpretentious manner of a countryside trattoria: red bricks, wood tables, travertine floors, and a long counter behind which food is prepared. Pizzas and everything else are cooked in one of two pine wood-burning hearths (which, because of recent zoning laws, will be the last two such ovens permitted in Miami-Dade County).
When the 122 seats are filled, buoyant crowd noise makes conversation difficult — but it also lends an alluring liveliness more associated with cafés in Rome and New York. Those seeking a quieter dining environment can head to the modern and somewhat minimalist second-floor lounge, which includes leather couches, flat-screen TV sets, and a slate bar fully loaded with liquor. This area gets loud too (hey, the place is popular), in which case the lounge leads to a spacious terrace where nighttime air absorbs the clatter and chatter. There's limited alfresco dining downstairs as well.
Although the place is deemed a pizzeria and mozzarella bar, there's plenty more going on gastronomically. In fact, a plethora of fresh vegetable offerings sets Casale apart from many other eateries. The menu mentions some 45 meatless items, with at least 16 vegetables available individually — baked, braised, roasted, sautéed, and in the case of baby artichokes, "in the style of Italian Jews" (and no, that doesn't mean they're sold wholesale). Not all of the food is vegetarian, but all vegetarians should consider eating here.
Among the tegamino di verdure al forno we sampled were slightly crunchy florets of braised cauliflower coated with a sheen of melted pecorino cheese; sautéed spinach with garlic; and fennel slices baked with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Another half-dozen vegetables are offered sott'olio, meaning marinated to an unctuous succulence in olive oil and complementing spices or herbs. Small cubes of al dente eggplant were toothsome in tandem with fresh, crusty slices of the pre-dinner Italian bread; roasted peppers made a worthy spread too.
Our vegetable count doesn't even include those tossed among nine salads — such as Sicilian tuna belly with cannellini beans, fennel, and orange; an it's-always-summer-in-Miami trio of watermelon, arugula, and goat cheese; and a Napoletana "green tomato salad" of crisp-ribbed romaine lettuce, red and yellow tomato wedges, and paper-thin onion ringlets in lemony red wine vinaigrette. It seemed as though the tomato colors were wrong until bites of the yellow proved firmly, tartly, tastily, greenly underripe — and on closer inspection possessed blushes of pink and lime.
Meatists need not be alarmed. Salty nubs of guanciale (bacon from the hog's jowl) lard a side of softly roasted "golden beets" (that were really beet red). Ribbons of minted zucchini come threaded with strips of pancetta. Wild boar sausage, prosciutto di Parma, and bresaola further beef up the menu, along with a veal meatball and eggplant sandwich, a filet mignon burger snuggled into a bun with provola cheese and guanciale, and an antipasti of Argentine chorizo with three-bean salad, which turned out to be a bean cassoulet lukewarm in temperature and appeal.
Why bother with beans when so many other alluring options beckon? The cheese bar, for instance, offers numerous milky pleasures, including bufala imported from Campania, braided mozzarella (treccione), and house-produced burrata Pugliese, a luscious cow's-milk cheese with a buttery center of wet, stringy, mildly tangy, ivory-colored curds that leak cream upon the plate (this mozzarella/cream combo is called stracciatella and is offered as a selection). Each cheese comes accompanied by two well-portioned sides chosen from a list of 14 (including shavings of prosciutto di Parma or bresaola; roasted cherry tomatoes, asparagus, or peppers; and a beautifully bitter sauté of rapini flecked with scraps of guanciale). A grand tasting of all five cheeses is $24.
Another means of sampling the cheese is atop one of the wood-fired pizzas. The crust of a first-visit Margherita pie was soggy toward the center, but on subsequent pies, it held up firmer; on all occasions, it was slightly blackened, bubbled, blistered, and more chewy than crisp. We liked the Tuttavista (robiola cheese and truffled pecorino) and Catalana (spicy chorizo, Manchego, tomato, and olives) pies, but the funghetto garnish of earthy wild mushrooms, pungent Taleggio cheese, and potent sage leaves proved overpowering.
Fresh crudo selections encompass carpaccios of swordfish, scallop, and yellowfin tuna; oysters du jour speckled with bits of bottarga; and tartares of tuna and wild salmon, the latter laced with salted Pantelleria capers that burst with flavor owing to a naturally high glucocaperine content.
If you're having trouble making choices, the waitstaff is adept at recommendations. Service is much sharper than you'd expect from a laid-back South Beach spot.
Lasagna, one of three pastas proffered, is not the typical American pillbox-hat pile of noodles, hamburger meat, and tomato sauce salted with grated Parmesan. This Napoletana version, served in a shallow circular baking pan, features a delicate layering of homemade pasta with a chopped wild boar meat/Italian sausage ragú and a modest dollop of bubbling mozzarella in bright, slightly acidic tomato sauce. You cannot snare a finer $14 entrée in South Beach. Other pastas — gnocchi with tomato and fior di latte cheese, and macaroni with Taleggio cheese and truffle pecorino — are also $14, as is the hamburger, a couple of calzones, and the crudo and cheese bar selections. The average pizza costs about $14 too; antipasti and salads run $11. These are all very friendly prices. The wine list is marked up in fair fashion as well, but while just about every bottle is under $60, there are very few reds for less than $39.
Panna cotta — a Piedmontese pudding of cream, sugar, vanilla, and gelatin — came silky-smooth and painted with strawberry and mango sauces. Like much of the food here, it pleased by way of simplicity, freshness, and meticulous execution — the same recipe for success as Sardinia Enoteca. Now if only Pietro can re-create that pizza from Oliena.