Igor Ferraro, chef and owner of La Bottega in Coconut Grove, hasn't quite adapted to U.S. culture yet. "It is very different here," he says. "I guess I am more old-school Italian." Originally from Venice, Ferraro founded, operated, and sold several businesses in Italy before making his way to America -- first to California and then to Miami. "This is closer to Italy for my wife and kids to be able to go back and forth. Besides, I got this great chance to do something I love here with La Bottega. So why not?"
The chef cooks from the heart and makes small batches of everything from scratch daily. Short Order had the chance to get a taste of La Bottega a couple of months ago at the Coconut Grove Dish Crawl. Because it was the last destination of the evening and Ferraro had been expecting crawl guests an hour earlier, pasta had been made to order and then was reheated. In kitchen talk, this is no bueno. Chef Ferraro invited Short Order back for a second round and a chance to get up close and personal with his food.
La Bottega, which boasts an open kitchen and wine bar, comes courtesy of the folks behind Taurus and Calamari and is nestled between both restaurants. Grab a seat in the courtyard, the white-table-clothed dining room, or the rustic wine bar, featuring wooden tables and proffering bottles of wine and other Italian delights. The last is also where La Bottega hosts cooking and wine classes, wine-pairing dinners, and winetastings. Join the La Cava wine club and receive admission for you and a guest to most classes and events, as well as complimentary use of the underground wine cellar -- the perfect location for a special event or occasion. Monday through Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m., all wines and appetizers are half off.
As far as the food, La Bottega's menu is just half the equation. Take recommendations from the chef and allow Ferraro to do his thing with whatever he has fresh that day. An active boater, Ferraro loves the ocean. "My favorite thing to cook is fish," he says. "But you know, everyone loves pasta."
If you can't decide what to order or you salivate when the chef visits your table to tell you his specials for the day, go for the tasting menu. At $49 per person for seven small dishes, it's a steal. It also comes with a side of Ferraro personally explaining each course.
The chef started us out with a little polipo, or octopus. Boiled to tender perfection, it shares the plate with cherry tomatoes, taggiasche olives, potatoes, and capers. The whole thing is seasoned with nothing but sea salt, pepper, and olive oil. A full serving of the dish would be double the portion size (maybe more) and cost $16.
Stuffed piquillo peppers are ultra-Spanish, but Ferraro stuffs his one-bite wonders with goat cheese, prosciutto, and portobello mushrooms. Romesco sauce adds a kick. The tasting menu provides only a sampling, but we could have had a full serving of these bad boys ($13).
Our visit happened to fall during lobster season, which meant Ferraro had some crustaceans waiting to be devoured. The lobster was somewhat puréed into a minced-like texture and then stuffed into handmade ravioli. Lobster bisque accompanied it.
Pasta del pescatore takes homemade fettuccine and adds a sprinkle of black squid ink to the dough to make the pasta black and piquant with briny flavor. The al dente pasta is tossed with sea scallops, shrimp, olives, cherry tomatoes, basil, and squid for a true taste of the ocean. This is one of those renditions Ferraro just whipped up, although a similar black pasta can be found on the menu.
Ferraro gets his prawns from Siberia and butterflies them, allowing the flavor to shine. Like the rest of his food, the prawns are minimally handled and seasoned with sea salt, pepper, and olive oil. "You don't need more than those three ingredients to make really tasty food." We had just half a prawn each as part of the tasting menu, but you can get two whole prawns butterflied with a side for $36.
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Branzino al cartoccio features Mediterranean sea bass cooked in foil with asparagus, potatoes, olives, capers, cherry tomatoes, scallops, jumbo shrimp, and calamari. A full fish runs $36.
Gelato and tiramisu are homemade. We opted for something a little cooler on a hot summer night and tried the strawberry and basil gelato flavors. If you want only one scoop, make it the basil.
Follow Carla on Twitter @ohcarlucha