If you were to step into Luca Bella in Aventura, perhaps after shopping at the nearby mall or maybe, like most patrons, after driving from Williams Island in your Mercedes-Benz, you might notice a dish named "burnt cauliflower" at the menu's end. It's a peculiar offering, but waiters suggest this contorno (side dish) as eagerly as the lobster ravioli in brandy-tarragon sauce or the shrimp fra diavolo with pasta. So you order it -- with low expectations -- after succumbing to the staff's plea.
Then the blackened cauliflower arrives at the table. It has been sautéed past its smoking point until burnt. The dark edges of the ivory blossoms radiate with notes of fire, smoke, and the lingering sweetness of charred vegetable. The garlic evokes spiciness, and the aromatic olive oil wafts throughout. It's a testament to the wonders of high heat, hot pans, extra-virgin olive oil, and garlic -- the beautiful byproduct of caramelization and the Maillard reaction.
The rest of the menu is much like this blanched and burnt cauliflower. That is to say, it isn't groundbreaking. No edible flowers, sous-vide machines, or pasta sauces with sliced truffles. It's what old-school New York-Italian fare is all about: simple, good cooking prepared in a straightforward manner.
Luca Bella, which opened in September 2011 in the former Chef Allen's space at Loehmann's Fashion Island off Biscayne Boulevard, isn't the place to go on a first date. You'll leave reeking of garlic and wearing marinara stains on your clothes. Indeed, Luca Bella isn't for lovers. It's for family. It's where you mop the Tuscan bread across plates streaked with sauce, like those sweet bits left over from Mickey's meatballs -- juicy, pan-fried sirloin rounds topped with a dollop of whipped mascarpone and ricotta, along with shredded fresh basil. It's where tables are set with two ramekins: one full of browned garlic swimming in olive oil and another with grated Parmesan cheese. Applying both to each and every dish is encouraged.
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