In Forte dei Marmi, Italy, the sidewalks are made of marble, and the surrounding Apennine mountains are covered with the white rock. Though a recently opened South Beach restaurant is named for the Tuscan seaside town, its real draw is a softer, serene atmosphere in conjunction with the rustic Italian cuisine of chef Raffaele Mellino and his father Antonio Mellino.
The elder Mellino is the chef/owner of the two-Michelin-star Quattro Passi on the Amalfi Coast. He also has a location in London. The decision to open another restaurant came after two Miami residents and longtime patrons of the original location, Tatyana and Riccardo Silva, coaxed the chefs to the Magic City.
Tatyana Silva says Miami lacks restaurants offering organic cuisine in a sophisticated setting. She and her husband wanted a place like that, so this past January, they opened Forte dei Marmi at 150 Ocean Dr., the 1938 Mediterranean-style villa that once housed Cavalli and DeVito's. There's no uhntz-uhntz blaring from the speakers here, just the quiet buzz of diners enjoying a luxurious candlelit dinner.
Forte dei Marmi uses organic ingredients whenever possible, and the chefs have established relationships with farmers in Homestead. The "raw and cooked" appetizer came to fruition after the Mellinos had amassed a ton of fresh local vegetables and were unsure of what to do with them. After some thinking, they decided to leave some veggies raw and cook the rest to create a Pinterest-perfect salad dressed with nothing but a hint of extra-virgin olive oil. The kitchen shuns butter. If you love vegetables and don't mind paying $18 for a salad, this starter is for you.
Antonio Mellino grew up just outside Naples and acquired his knowledge of seafood from his father, who was in the business. Despite having plenty of local fish to choose from in Miami, the toque prefers to source it from the Mediterranean because he finds the product saltier. For the calamari starter, the kitchen cooks the squid sous vide and flash-freezes it. It's then thinly sliced to resemble strands of tagliatelle pasta and seasoned with lemon, olive oil, herbs, and wisps of artichoke.
Forte dei Marmi's cuisine is rooted in restraint, and the chefs believe in letting the ingredients do the talking. Unfortunately, the calamari doesn't say much. It tastes more like air than squid; more pronounced flavors would've been preferable.
The younger Mellino says that upon arriving in Miami, he and his father quickly realized they had some serious competition from one of their neighbors: Joe's Stone Crab. So to satisfy local palates, they chose to offer a pasta dish with crab, but opted for the Alaskan variety rather than local stone crabs.
Chef Antonio is renowned for his homemade pastas and is opposed to precooking them prior to serving. Thus, when the tagliolini with crab, cherry tomatoes, and chili oil arrives at the table, it's obvious the pasta has been made à la minute, and the difference is discernible. The sauce is a creamy crustacean bisque that clings to the noodles like a toddler to her mother. It's certainly a stellar primo; however, for $28, it should include more crab.
Service at Forte lacks the finesse required for an establishment of this caliber. Though they try, members of the wait staff struggle to keep up once the restaurant gets busy around 8 p.m. It's why the whole branzino on a recent visit arrived encrusted in salt instead of grilled as requested. The eatery receives shipments of fresh wild fish from the Mediterranean twice per week, and the simply prepared branzino "al sale" is light and fluffy, but not particularly exciting. It's served with delicious grilled vegetables; a salsa of chopped tomatoes, onions, and capers in olive oil; and an unfortunate portion of overcooked broccoli.
A more enticing main is the veal chop accompanied by duck-fat potatoes. It's pan-fried and then glazed in a reduction made from its own bones and vegetables. The protein is brilliantly spiced and bursts with juicy goodness. Really, what more could you ask for from a veal chop?
When summer rolls around, Chef Antonio will head back to Italy to oversee his restaurant in Nerona and will leave his 27-year-old son in charge. (Raffaele says he doesn't miss the Amalfi Coast too much because Miami also has the sand and sea.)
Indeed, the restaurant's architect, Chad Oppenheim (he's also a partner in the restaurant), and designer Henry Timi envisioned Forte dei Marmi as a pared-back oasis where guests feel as though they're dining along a sandy beach. It explains the use of natural materials and why everything is a shade of calming beige. The focal point is the terrace, and to create a true tranquil space, the Silvas enlisted famed Swiss landscape architect Enzo Enea to design the lush garden.
Upstairs, an intimate bar and lounge hosts live concerts, film screenings, guest speakers, and food and wine tastings. The Silvas are passionate about cuisine, art, music, and philanthropy and want to contribute to the Miami scene.
Forte dei Marmi brings upscale fare and a quiet elegance to South Beach dining, and from the looks of it, locals and visitors have quickly embraced the place. The crowd here is glamorous but not ostentatious. The food is good, sure, but some improvements need to be made in the kitchen and at the front of the house in order to justify the high price associated with enjoying a taste of Forte dei Marmi in Miami.
Forte dei Marmi
150 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach; 786-276-3095. Dinner Tuesday and Wednesday 6 to 11 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 6 to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 6 to 10 p.m.
Raw and cooked vegetables $18
Calamari tagliatelle $23
Tagliolini with Alaskan crab $28
Whole branzino for three $90
Glazed veal chop $48
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