Restaurant Reviews

Macchialina Taverna Rustica: Magic and Pasta Happen Here

Macchialina Taverna Rustica is something of a stretch for the Pubbelly team of Jose Mendin, Sergio Navarro, and Andreas Schreiner. It stretches the perimeter of their little empire from the Sunset Harbour section of South Beach — where Pubbelly, Pubbelly Sushi, and Barceloneta are all bundled on 20th Street — to Eighth Street and Alton Road. The culinary focus on Asian- and Spanish-influenced small plates stretches to encompass rustic Italian food. And chef Michael Pirolo has been brought in, which stretches the trio to four (or five if you include general manager/partner Jennifer Chaefsky).

It's not, however, a stretch to say Macchialina trumpets the same attractive attributes as its sister venues: pleasing, well-priced fare, craft beers, and wines and an amiable neighborhood-restaurant vibe geared toward locals.

The 60-seat establishment, which occupies the former Sylvano restaurant space, has been refitted to reflect the Pubbelly blueprint for affable ambiance: Multiple chalkboards marked with specials hang on light-gray/beige brick walls, floors are the original wide-plank black wood, the ceiling is low, light bulbs covered in red plastic construction sheaths dangle above an eight-seat bar, and other red accents brighten banquette backs and chair cushions.

View a photo slide show of Macchialina.

Details are scrupulously attended to. This pertains not only to an alert service staff and GM Chaefsky's keen-eyed orchestration of the dining room (amazing what a difference an efficient and caring overseer can make), but also in less obvious ways. Music, normally an afterthought, is compiled according to a rotating nightly theme — Tuesday is hip-hop, for example. Happy-hour specials don't bring the usual pedestrian bar snacks for $5 each; a five-spot here scores a choice of any pizza and a pint of beer. Beers and wines are meticulously selected as well: Peroni is on tap, and bottled brews come from Scotland (oak-aged Innis & Gunn), Belgium (La Chouffe), the United States (Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA), and Italy (Birrificio le Baladin). The concise all-Italian wine list, categorized according to northern, central, and southern regions, is composed of mostly midrange bottles (starting at $36).

In short, Macchialina's mantra is: Do the right thing.

Hiring Pirolo was certainly an example of that. The New York native worked with Scott Conant at Scarpetta from day one and served as executive chef of the Fontainebleau's fabulous Italian restaurant for four years before moseying over to Macchialina. He and sous-chef Jeremy Shelton head an impressively consistent kitchen.

A quartet of stuzzichini (snacks) leads off the menu, which is divided into six short sections. Filone brings lightly grilled slices of country bread slathered with olive oil flavored by garlic, oregano, and rosemary. Diners can pair the bread with salsa verde ($3) or fontina fonduta ($5). The fondue, as one might guess, is cheesy and rich, dashed with Maldon sea salt and a piquant swirl of red chili oil on top. There is no predinner breadbasket, so carb-cravers might want to order this as a jump-start.

Other small snacks include fried olives with Gorgonzola, stromboli (rolled, stuffed pizzas) with mortadella and fontina, and arancini (a trio of fried rice balls).

The "Salumi & Raw Bar" section of the menu is a bit of an exaggeration — the latter offers a choice between only oysters and head-on U-8 prawns. Still, the charcuterie spread is satisfying: five meats and four cheeses, all Italian imports. The former tenders mortadella, salami felino, prosciutto, and culatello di zibello, a prized, aged ham produced south of Parma since the 15th Century. Porchetta is proffered as well; the paper-thin slices of herbed, fat-wrapped, spit-roasted pork taste like the love child of mortadella and belly.

Cheese selections are Gorgonzola, Pecorino-Toscano, Asiago, and La Tur, an oozy, buttery pasteurized product of Piedmont. Individual selections run $7 to $12 for salumi, $5 per fromage. A board containing the chef's choice of four cheeses is $16, a meat board with an equal number of selections is $22, and a combo goes for $26.

Three of four pizzas present potent garnishes, from pancetta, Gorgonzola, and fried egg to a carnival of clams, sausage, broccoli, ricotta cheese, and smoked mozzarella. We played it safe with a margherita, boasting a flavorful salted crust crowned with mozzarella di bufala and a purée of fresh tomatoes like you would find atop a Spanish pan con tomate. The pure flavors of tomato, cheese, and bread shine through.

A quote heading the menu reads, "Life is a combination of magic and pasta" (the words come from the plump magician of Italian cinema, Federico Fellini). Macchialina's vision is mostly a combination of antipasti and pasta. One of our favorites of the former features very creamy polenta — almost like corn custard — with spicy house-made Italian pork sausage, snippets of cipollini onions, and a generous sprinkling of chives ($12).

Tortino di melanzane ($11) is a terrific update on eggplant Parmesan. Thin slices of the softly fried vegetable form a dome around layers of eggplant, tomato sauce, basil, mozzarella, smoked mozzarella, and ricotta cheese. Filone bread is plated alongside.

Seafood salad likewise soars with a pristine medley of clams, octopus, and shrimp splashed with preserved tangerine vinaigrette and spruced with teeny croutons and razor-thin flecks of fennel.

Broccolini al cesare, an original twist on caesar salad, employs garlic crisps, anchovies, and a cap of Parmigiano to perk up a mound of chilled, cooked greens ($9). Delectable meatballs made from veal cheek and pork satisfy in old-school fashion.

There are five pasta dishes (and sometimes more, depending upon the composition of nightly specials). Among them are agnolotti del plin — fresh egg noodles shaped into petite pockets of minced veal, pork, and chicken and served with cipollini onions in a reduced "brodo" that's more sauce than broth.

Lasagna is a dense rectangle of homemade noodles neatly stacked between layers of short ribs and Taleggio cheese — exceedingly hearty and filling, but good. Cavatelli comes laden with meatballs, porchetta, and Pecorino; cannelloni wraps around burrata and eggplant; and spaghetti showcases littleneck clams and arugula.

A 22-ounce bone-in rib eye ($49), branzino with mixed seafood ($30), and pork chop Milanese ($25) compose a trio of larger, main-course plates. The last is a huge 14-ounce chunk of breaded meat with fava beans in a sprightly mustard jus. Best bet is to share it.

View a photo slide show of Macchialina.

A margherita pizza or plate of cavatelli and meatballs is included as an added course for diners who opt for the Miami Spice menu. Management must feel compelled to make this gesture because Macchialina's modest prices otherwise dictate that the $39 Spice deal isn't much of a deal. Small plates of antipasti regularly range from $9 to $14, pizza is $12 to $14, and pastas run $15 to $18.

Desserts are $8 apiece and include peach/blueberry strudel, bread pudding bumped with banana and butterscotch, vanilla panna cotta burnished with berries, and the coolest tiramisu in town: a mason jar of creamy mascarpone pudding tinted with dulce de leche, layered with espresso-soaked lady fingers, and capped with chocolate crumbles and espresso granita.

Is it any wonder the line to get in stretches out the door?

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Miami New Times' restaurant reviewer for the past decade, and the world's indisputable master of disguise.
Contact: Lee Klein