Restaurant Reviews

Ni.Do. Caffe Charms With Laid-Back Italian on the Upper Eastside

Matteo Paderni leans with one hand on a chocolate-brown bentwood chair and makes a lively gesture with the other. At his Upper Eastside eatery, Ni.Do. Caffè, he speaks in rapid Italian to a 50-something patron, a gentleman wearing a starched white button-down shirt and his brunet hair slicked back like a Roman Antonio Banderas.

Around them, petite tables are topped with taupe butcher paper, potted lavender plants, and multicolored platters of cheese and prosciutto crudo. Walls are covered with chalkboards advertising handwritten daily specials. A white wooden cabinet offers glass bottles of tomato sauce, truffle oil, and extra-virgin olive oil for sale. Although dozens of diners crowd the bustling eatery, Paderni dedicates his attention to the man's simple question: Why isn't the buffalo mozzarella made in-house?

"It's impossible to make good fresh buffalo mozzarella in America," Paderni says. "But the other cheeses — such as the affumicato, the burrata, the fior di latte — are all made here." Then he explains that water buffalo from the Italian region of Campania are really more like hippopotamuses and much less like the animals found on American prairies. He complains about the difficulty of finding domestic water buffalo milk. And finally he explains the step-by-step process of making fior di latte, which is like buffalo mozzarella but made with cow's milk.

During the fast-paced monologue, his tone darts from friendly to pompous to didactic. When his brunet Italian conversation partner nods in agreement, Paderni's face shows innate satisfaction. In a polite goodbye, he tilts his head slightly, steps away from the man, and turns toward our table.

"Tutto bene?" he asks. The Florence native requests our order, and after we comply, he informs us that it is too much food. He suggests we eliminate the gnocchi alla sorrentina. I want gnocchi, but there is no time to object. Paderni has already ricocheted to the next group of diners.

At this quaint Belle Meade restaurant, Paderni and his wife, Giorgia Calabrese, run the show. The kitchen is helmed by Calabrese's cousin, Giancarlo Marino. The eatery's name is a tribute to the owner's sons, Nicolo and Domenico, and also means "little nest" in Italian.

From 2009 to 2011, the couple owned a tapas bar in South Beach named Gusto Vino & Caffè. That year, they sold the place and opened this Biscayne Boulevard eatery. "Ni.Do. is completely different from Miami Beach. We decided to open in this area because it needed an Italian restaurant," he says. "And this is the future. The future is in Biscayne."

Indeed, many dining enclaves are opening on the Upper Eastside. Michelle Bernstein's Michy's has flourished since its debut in 2005. Over the past year, new eateries — including Blue Collar and the Federal Food, Drink & Provisions — have launched on the Magic City's high-traffic main street. The area isn't chock full of success stories, though. Some restaurants have failed, such as Kris Wessel's beloved Red Light Little River.

But Ni.Do. Caffè is thriving. Located in a strip mall, the restaurant doesn't seem like the ideal setting for a food business. Yet inside is an indication of good things: people. There are usually a lot of them at Ni.Do.

Part of the lure is Paderni's demeanor. After he nudges me away from the gnocchi, a refreshing quinoa salad, studded with black beans, chunks of mango, minced parsley, and half-moons of house-made mozzarella fior di latte, arrives at our table. Then comes a platter of ravioli — pockets of house-made pasta shaped into ribboned squares and stuffed with fontina cheese and mushrooms, in a creamy, nutty sauce with Parmigiano-Reggiano. And there is burrata — a wonderful knotted pouch of mozzarella with an oozing center of curds and cream. All of it is not only delectable but also plenty of food. Paderni was right.

The pasta dishes at Ni.Do. are unassuming and modest. Nonetheless, they are prepared with consistency and care. The ravioli, paccheri, and cannelloni are made fresh and in-house. (So are the ciabatta and baguette breads, which are complimentary at the beginning of each meal.) The lasagnette — thick ribboned layers of homemade pasta piled with a scarlet pomodoro sauce, Bolognese, and ricotta — is ideally hearty, rich, and decadent. And the linguine allo scoglio, a dish that delights with a subtle flavor of the sea, is laced nicely with a delicate white-wine sauce and tossed with clams, mussels, shrimp, and crabmeat. Although the sauce could have used an additional dose of garlic or pepe­roncino flakes, its flavors are well achieved.

Secondi offerings include a 12-ounce rib eye with herbed butter, branzino in butter-lemon sauce, salmon fillets with watercress, and pan-seared lamb chops with mint. The last is served alongside mashed potatoes and sautéed baby carrots and green beans. The fare here is rarely innovative. And the lamb chops, which were ordered medium, arrived well done. But it seemed unreasonable to complain. The flesh was so tender and juicy. There was no need to summon Paderni for a confrontation regarding overcooked meat.

Desserts follow the same track: delicious, classic, and memorable. They include pineapple-and-coconut panna cotta, homemade gelato, crostata, daily rotating specials, and tiramisu. That last item, like lasagna, can be a stale rendition of a tired Italian dish. At Ni.Do., though, the tiramisu's conventional flavors bespeak comfort and familiarity.

Following dessert, past the bubbling espresso machine behind the bar, across tables teeming with rambunctious business lunchers, and beyond the bustling waitstaff darting from table to table, I spot Paderni chatting with a new group. On cue, between bites of linguine and spaghetti, his audience erupts into spirited laughter. After two meals at Ni.Do., I've learned this: When Paderni speaks about food, people listen.

In those moments, the setting feels far from the razzmatazz of South Beach, the Design District, or even midtown. As with many other new joints along the Biscayne corridor, crowds flow into Ni.Do. hoping to steer clear of valet parking, overpriced crudos, and $20 crafted cocktails. They want mozzarella, grissini, and gelato. And they stick around for something simple and charming: a small place serving nothing more than good, laid-back Italian eats.

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Emily Codik

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