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.
Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 4 to 10 p.m.
Mickey's meatballs $15.95
Burnt cauliflower $11.95
Cheese ravioli marinara $16.95
Veal Marsala $14.95
Chicken parmigiana $12.95
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.
The eatery is owned by Mickey Maltese, who previously co-owned the chain Matteo's Italian Restaurant until it was sold to Sbarro in 2010. He has roots in Naples, Italy. His two children, Marcelo Luca and Isabella, inspired the moniker.
During our visits, the 200-seat dining room was decked out in holiday trappings — including a blue-and-white Christmas tree, ornaments hanging from the ceiling, and Santa Claus stickers on the long mirror across the back wall. The space has an open kitchen behind glass, a private dining area, and a 20-seat bar. It's nothing grand. But no one goes to Luca Bella for the setting.
Patrons visit for the cheese ravioli, round envelopes of fresh pasta stuffed with ricotta and topped with an abundance of garlic-studded marinara; the tender veal Marsala, with a deep, rich mushroom-and-beef-based sauce; and pasta e fagioli, a tomato-based vegetable broth with ditalini pasta, cannellini beans, and a few scattered vegetables. The tiramisu is a classic, delectable wedge of espresso-drenched ladyfingers layered with mascarpone.
All proteins come with a choice of side: either pasta (linguine, fettuccine, penne, rigatoni, angel hair, or spaghetti), dressed in marinara (you will eat a lot of stewed tomatoes here), or a vegetable (cauliflower, broccoli, green beans, escarole, spinach, broccoli rabe, or Brussels sprouts), which you can order sautéed or beautifully burnt.
There were some misses when we visited this New York-meets-Italy-in-Aventura eatery. The basil atop the meatballs was oxidized, the chicken parmigiana was overcooked, and the veal Marsala needed a dash of salt. When the broccoli was requested sautéed, it tasted boring, as if it had been steamed. And the place could use a fresh coat of paint.
Dishes here are served family style and are available in either half or full portions. The entire experience fosters sharing. This means that after offering to crack freshly ground black pepper atop your pasta, waiters insist on serving your dinner. Spaghetti is presented spoonful by spoonful. Chicken parmigiana is divided into portions tableside. Penne are dropped onto the platter dollop by dollop. The gesture would have seemed more hospitable if our fettuccine hadn't become pasty while the server carefully plated the ravioli, which were already getting cold.
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The servers have been trained to use Italian buzzwords, but there are only so many times a diner wants to hear piacere, prego, and grazie. Listening to ladies being repeatedly called bella and gentlemen bello can become grating, particularly coming from a waiter whose first language is Spanish and who has never set foot in Italy. But because the servers themselves crack jokes about it, even the forced Italian becomes gradually charming. (Our waiter said he was from the part of Italy located between Ecuador and Texas.)
Prices are also high, particularly in the evening. A set of three large meatballs costs $15.95. That's a pricey mouthful. A half portion of baked fettuccine Alfredo is $19.95. But perhaps the target crowd doesn't mind. Aventura denizens and snowbirds aren't always tightfisted.
One more thing: When we visited during lunch, an employee had the chutzpah to tote out a step ladder, along with a bagful of light bulbs from the hardware store, and change burnt-out lamps — right in the middle of the dining room. Maltese's family-style approach can get him only so far. I don't know of any families who interrupt lunch for some handiwork.
Those flaws matter little when you're heaping chunks of roasted garlic atop Tuscan bread. In those moments, the only concern is whether the person next to you can pass the parm. Once you add the cheese to the bread and take a bite, you'll forget Luca Bella's minor mistakes. You'll be too busy dropping tomato sauce on your shirt.