Miami is a town of many charming, unique, evocative neighborhoods with very few charming, unique, evocative neighborhood restaurants.
Why is this?
We can venture a few guesses. Miami is a city with no real culinary tradition, at least if you exclude stone crabs and restaurants that shear tourists like sunburned, booze-addled sheep. It's a city where the cost of living and doing business — combined with a government seemingly run by Moe, Larry, and Curly — makes operating a modestly financed yet gastronomically ambitious restaurant either prohibitive or impossible. And, let's be honest, it's a city where much of the dining public prefers huge portions of cheap, mediocre food to paying the freight for top-quality ingredients and the kitchen skills necessary to prepare them properly.
180 Crandon Blvd, #109, Key Biscayne; 305-365-2299. Open daily 6:00 to 10:00 p.m.
So when you run across a restaurant like Vito's, it's enough to make you sit up and take notice. Not that Vito's — a tiny, cute, and decidedly modest restaurant in a cramped strip mall on tony Key Biscayne — is particularly ambitious in the culinary sense. It operates squarely in the tried and true Italian idiom: carpaccio, fried calamari, and the usual assortment of pastas and meat and poultry dishes. But the food is done with a bit more care and verve than at many of the city's popular Italian joints, and though hardly perfect, it reflects some of the refined simplicity that characterizes authentic Italian fare.
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Perhaps the fare tastes better because of the unpretentious neighborliness of the place. Customers know each other and chat back and forth across their tables; slow nights require only a single personable, attentive waiter to preside over the dining room's dozen or so tables; and the ornate, operatic stylings of Italian vocalists are a pleasant contrast to the drill press music that excavates diners' eardrums across the water in South Beach.
It also helps that the ubiquitous fried calamari was doused for just the right amount of time in very clean oil, emerging crisp and tender and grease-free, perked up by a simple, fresh-tasting marinara. Pasta e fagioli, the classic peasant soup that puts the lust in lusty, does that here too, with a thick, garlicky, tomato-bronzed broth supporting lots of plump beans and diminutive tubetti pasta. It was practically a meal in itself, and hearty enough to beg a cold front to come through.
Pastas and entrées are generously portioned and reasonably priced as well, with a few splurges on the blackboard chalked with the day's specials. Spaghetti frutti di mare was loaded with so much seafood it would easily satiate two diners (even if they passed on three shrimp that tasted of iodine). Beyond that, though, the wealth of mussels, clams, fish, and calamari was all fresh and well cooked, the pasta a precise al dente, and the sauce neither too tomatoey nor too heavily applied. Veal capricciosa was one of those splurges, a bone-in veal chop pounded to the diameter of a manhole cover, breaded and pan-fried (in a bit too much oil), then topped with a salad of peppery arugula and remarkably flavorful tomatoes — a gastronomically correct mingling of meat and greens that would bring a smile to the face of any sensitive carnivore.
Vito's doesn't make a big deal of dessert. There were only two, of which tiramisu seemed the obvious choice, especially because it was freshly housemade. The layers of whipped mascarpone and liqueur-soaked ladyfingers performed the Italian alchemy that renders basic ingredients into a whole much tastier than the sum of its parts — which, when you think about it, is something you can say about Vito's too.