Sit on Fiorito's front porch on a Saturday afternoon. Watch men with dreadlocks kill time outside the Little Haiti Supermarket across the way. Listen to the one-two beats of compas blast from a nearby speaker. Check out that guy! He's selling T-shirts from the back of his Jeep. Behold neon-painted botanicas, the hipster paradise known as Sweat Records, and the British pub Churchill's, where warm Guinness flows. Look at NE Second Avenue's pavement -- the summer heat sparkles.
On this polyglot strip in Little Haiti, brothers Maximiliano and Cristian Alvarez, natives of Córdoba, opened their Argentine restaurant December 21, 2012. "The date of the end of the world!" says Maximiliano, a boyish 29-year-old with jet-black hair and ebullient eyes. "The perfect date to accomplish our dream." They named the teeny restaurant after Villa Fiorito, a slum south of Buenos Aires close to where they once lived.
They gutted a Haitian cafeteria and filled it with coiled light bulbs, red brick walls, and photographs. A jersey signed by Diego Maradona hangs in a corner. The famed midfielder was born in Fiorito. And it's no coincidence that the brothers are big fans. Fiorito might look like a bachelor's dining room -- usually no-frills but apparently spruced up for when Mom comes to town. Sure, the brothers display framed jerseys, but they also keep dainty potted plants around.
Food is cooked and served by the owners here, a rarity in our chef-idolizing town. Cristian, formerly chef de cuisine at South Beach's the Dining Room, reigns from the kitchen. Maximiliano helms the front of the house as runner, busboy, server, and, occasionally, sommelier. Things can move slowly. But don't mind the wait. Ask Maximiliano to keep the Quilmes flowing. Order more $3 puffed beef empanadas, filled with spiced hanger steak. A meal at Fiorito is nicest when you forget your watch.
Try Cristian's pumpkin soup, a glossy blend of puréed celery, zucchini, tomato, and squash. It's laced with homemade chili oil, and diced provolone dots the surface. When it melts, the cheese mischievously trails behind your spoon. Warm night? Skip the soup and opt for mollejas -- veal sweetbreads marinated overnight in herbs and milk and then pan-seared until golden and crisp. Squeeze lemon over these bits, which are served over arugula and mashed potatoes. Feigned decencies don't belong here. So go ahead -- fight with friends over the last piece.
Fiorito's seafood dishes succeed not only for the ingredients but also for the omissions. A simple salad with arugula, pickled cabbage, and cherry tomatoes is plopped atop a pan-seared Pacific corvina, its flaky flesh steamy and dripping. Grilled Spanish octopus is boiled quickly in court-bouillon and then thrown on the grill with mint and paired with romesco sauce, chimichurri, and roasted peppers doused in vinegar. Those who need accompaniments may order from a selection of grilled vegetables, roasted potatoes, and butternut squash purée. But these dishes don't require anything else.
Neither do the canelones, cigar-shaped cylinders stuffed with spinach, ricotta, mozzarella, and nutmeg. Smothered in tomato and reduced cream sauce, the pink-swaddled crêpes taste just like the pastas served at Buenos Aires' classic cafés.
Tourists trek to Argentina's capital for steak, but Fiorito's churrasco isn't worth the trip. The gaucho staple, ordered medium, arrived chewy and tough, way past well-done. The chimichurri did not salvage the charred and battered meat. Don't dwell too long on this imperfection. Remember: Fiorito has but one man in the kitchen and another on the floor.
Redemption arrives swiftly with Cristian's pork confit. Pork butt, marinated in orange juice, rosemary, and Dijon mustard, is cooked in swine fat for five hours and then seared. It crowns a butternut squash purée splashed with Dijon mustard-chimichurri reduction. Pull at the pork's meat. It gradually disintegrates into thin strips of succulent flesh.
"All we've got is dulce de leche flan," Maximiliano says on a recent weekend afternoon. He lacks superlatives when describing Fiorito's only dessert, the flan, which deserves a better sell. Here's one: Prices at Fiorito average about $30 per person. Splurge with a $5 dessert. The creamy custard, topped with a dollop of homemade dulce de leche, is enough to fog the glasses of sweets lovers and cheapskates alike.
Maximiliano delivers the check in a tin can tied with a cyan-and-white ribbon, the colors of Argentina's flag. The handwritten bill shows tally marks: many Quilmeses, cafecitos, and empanadas -- more than anyone cares to admit. Hands resting on his hips, he gazes out at the neighborhood -- not like a trailblazer, but a man who runs a restaurant with his brother in an affordable spot.
"Tomorrow is Haitian Flag Day," he says with an affable smile. "The street is going to close for a parade. It's gonna be a real party!" The next day, by Fiorito's entrance, a small sign is printed with the Haitian flag. It reads, "Fiorito Community Partners, $2 Empanadas."
"It's a strong contrast between Fiorito and Little Haiti, but I think it works," Maximiliano says. "What's going on here is something multicultural, and isn't that the whole idea behind Miami anyway?"
The brothers refer to Fiorito as a destination spot, which implies most diners live outside the neighborhood. Still, Haiti and Argentina do not merely coexist at their restaurant. It's like an Argentine newlywed who married into a Haitian family. Cristian and Maximiliano Alvarez may eat mostly mollejas, but they also dig their neighbors' griot.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.
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