Lino Anastasia is fully focused on the task at hand. He's filling rolled-out sheets of green pasta with fresh ricotta and mascarpone and then molding them to resemble little hats — cappelletti in Italian. He learned the craft from his nonna in Torino, Italy, and today earns a living making pasta behind the window display of Pane & Vino on Washington Avenue in South Beach.
The brawny pastaiolo's presence out front serves two purposes, says owner Angelo Quaglini: to draw in mesmerized passersby and to assure customers that Pane & Vino isn't kidding about pastas being homemade. Indeed, after Anastasia finishes shaping the cappelletti, they are moved to executive chef Paolo Ferrera's kitchen.
There, the 37-year-old Sicilian toque prepares a delicate black truffle butter sauce to pour over the "sombreros," as he playfully calls them. Ferrera adds grated and sliced Parmesan cheese, a sprig of basil, and two roasted cherry tomatoes to give the plate a pop of color. So good is the stuffed pasta and the aromatic sauce that they could be served individually and still impress. Yet here, they're paired for a dish best described as intoxicating.
It's pastas like this that make it necessary — even on a weeknight in summertime — to reserve a table at the 2-year-old Pane & Vino. A friendly waiter informs our table that nearly 70 percent of the clientele is from out of town, which is unsurprising given that Pane & Vino is the second-best-rated eatery in Miami Beach, according to Trip Advisor. Surely, the Italian restaurant's proximity to touristy Española Way also has something to do with its popularity — a fact that wasn't overlooked by Quaglini and his wife Athena when they chose this location. However, it must be said that many surrounding eateries sit half-empty while a line forms outside Pane & Vino's pasta display by 8 p.m.
Although several tables are set up outside, it's best to avoid the uncomfortable chairs and noise of Washington Avenue and book a seat inside. Athena has decorated the small, narrow space with rustic-style wood furniture and an assortment of knickknacks. Vintage photographs, bottles of vino, and inspirational quotes adorn the walls and contribute to Pane & Vino's homey charm.
The menu concentrates on starters and Ferrera's specialty — pastas. Salmon, rib eye, tuna, and chicken are the only secondi options, and hardly anyone orders them. The patrons are more interested in the spaghetti alla ruota, and rightfully so. The pasta arrives on a trolley next to a giant wheel of hollowed-out Parmigiano-Reggiano imported from Italy. A waiter then places the noodles inside the scraped-out hunk of cheese and tosses them vigorously so they absorb the sharp Parmesan.
It's fun to watch, sure, but even better to eat. The sauce is so velvety and rich that it's easy to think heavy cream is involved. But Ferrera says the only dairy product in his recipe is Parmigiano. An Italian restaurant cannot reach greatness without having the basics perfected, and Pane & Vino's spaghetti al pomodoro is arguably the best in town.
Another dish the restaurant does better than the rest is eggplant parmigiana. The layered baked eggplant antipasto is beautifully crisp and neither bitter nor soggy. There's nothing complicated about this comforting starter, which is likely why it's so scrumptious.
A tasty yet less indulgent starter is the house-marinated bresaola crowned with arugula, artichokes, and Parmesan. Bresaola is Italian air-cured beef from the top round that has been aged for up to three months. It has a light, clean flavor and a deep-burgundy hue. Bad bresaola is chewy and bland, but this is far from the case at Pane & Vino, where the thinly sliced meat is expertly seasoned.
Ferrera befriended Angelo and Athena Quaglini long ago in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where he had his own place and oversaw two major hotel restaurants. The Italian-born couple, who own a restaurant in Mexico, relocated to Miami and opened Pane & Vino in 2014. The first person they called was their compatriot Ferrera.
One of the toque's signature dishes is pappardelle al ragù di agnello, or wide ribbon noodles with slow-cooked lamb. Ferrera tops it with crisp artichokes like his grandmother used to do in Sicily when making him lamb chops. It's the chef's favorite meat, and the hearty ragu is prepared with the utmost care. However, there's too much sauce, which detracts somewhat from the elegance of this pasta course.
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Tableside preparations are de rigueur here, and desserts are no exception. If you opt for the tiramisu, observe as the waiter pours hot espresso over a bed of ladyfingers, followed by a generous smear of mascarpone cream and a sprinkling of chocolate powder. It's not the finest tiramisu, but it's good nonetheless.
Among food-savvy locals, there's a stigma associated with dining on Española Way and in its vicinity. Yet if you're in doubt about trying Pane & Vino, let this quote on the restaurant's wall be your guide: "There are many important things in life: one is eating well, the other I don't remember."
Pane & Vino
1450 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-535-9027; paneevinomia.com. Dinner daily 5 p.m. to midnight.
Cappelletti in black truffle sauce, $25
Spaghetti alla ruota, $19
Eggplant parmigiana, $13
Bresaola carpaccio, $13
Pappardelle with lamb ragu, $25