Cheap restaurant in South Beach" is dangerously close to being an oxymoron. "Good cheap restaurant in South Beach" is so oxy you almost have to be a moron to believe that such a greed-defying miracle actually exists.
Well, I don't mean to sound stupid or anything, but there's at least one good cheap restaurant in the very heart of South Beach that's been around for more than 25 years -- in our notoriously fickle culinary culture, the equivalent of a crackhead living to be 120.
The place is Master's Italian Restaurant, which has been dishing up thin-crust pizza and big bowls of pasta since 1979, when Miami Vice had yet to patent pastels and South Beach wasn't lousy with restaurants charging twelve bucks for a glass of crummy wine and $35 for an entr'e that could fit in a demitasse cup.
Master's Italian Restaurant
1720 Alton Rd, Miami Beach; 305-672-2763
Open daily 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.
At Master's, ten bucks and change will get you an individual pizza with a thing-of-beauty crust as crisp as a freshly baked Ritz cracker, or a hefty serving of pasta that will beat on your hunger with a two-by-four until it whines for mercy. There's more than just pizza and pasta, too, though the former also comes in deep-dish, Sicilian, breakfast, stromboli, and calzone guises, and pastas range from rigatoni Amatriciana to baked ziti. Don't feel like a dummy if you'd rather have a hot or cold sub, roasted chicken, burger, soup, salad, starter, or even risotto -- Master's does them all.
Of course, at these prices, don't go expecting some fancy-pants SoBe looker. Master's is a plain room, long and narrow, nicer than your average pizzeria but dominated by a long table lined with food warmers for the lunch buffet and twin pizza ovens behind a chest-high counter (though a small dining room in the rear, dubbed "Caf' M," does contain a black lacquered piano). The wine list is minimal, but also better than your average pizzeria, as is service.
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Ordering pizza can be something of a challenge; the various combinations of toppings, plus the manner in which they're applied to the crust, can make indecision an occupational hazard. Suffice to say, whether you order a classic sausage, peppers, and onions, or something a little more offbeat -- like the feta, black olive, red onion, and artichoke heart "Athenian" -- the crispy-in-the-center, chewy-around-the-edges crust is so good a garnish of wadded-up napkin wouldn't diminish your enjoyment of it. It even takes just as well to the role of calzone, folded up over a generous filling of molten mozzarella and ricotta cheese and sauced with a creditable marinara.
Pastas are almost as varied as pizzas, and include a trio of soft rolls doused with ferociously garlicky olive oil and a small caesar-esque salad of blemish-free romaine, crunchy croutons, and bottled-tasting dressing. Penne with shrimp and mushrooms come bobbing in a veritable ocean of an irresistible creamy-cheesy pesto sauce the color of newly minted greenbacks and richer than the House of Saud. By comparison, lasagna is restrained, almost diet fare, achieving a balance of meat to cheese to sauce to pasta that eludes most others.
Cast any notion of dietary restraint out into the scrum of Alton Road traffic and order tiramisu. It might not be the smartest move, cholesterolically speaking, and the layers of sweetened cheese separating the macerated ladyfingers are more dense and heavy than light and airy. But, gastronomically speaking, it hits the sweet spot.
Look, if you're hungry for a good cheap restaurant in South Beach, it would be dumb, moronic even, not to check out Master's.