Proof, Midtown's Casual New Spot, Offers a Fresh Take on Italian Cuisine

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Pause for a moment to inhale the aroma of fresh Burgundy truffles that fleck the frothy soup's surface. Swirls of brown butter diffuse the mushrooms' fragrance, infusing the appetizer with the rich scent and taste of toasted hazelnuts. Both raw and golden tips of cauliflower float atop the dish that is so meticulously plated you almost don't want to dig in. Almost.

Once you do, be sure to scoop up a piece of crunchy vegetable with the unexpectedly light broth. The flavor of Yukon Gold potatoes is barely detectable, but they give the soup its irresistibly creamy texture, chef Justin Flit explains.

Formerly the executive sous-chef at Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak, Flit opened Proof Pizza & Pasta two months ago on North Miami Avenue in midtown. The 30-year-old says the neighborhood's "cool" factor was the ideal setting for the casual, inviting, anti-Italian restaurant he's always envisioned owning.

See also: November's Restaurant Openings and Closings

"We're down the street from Harry's Pizzeria, and there are so many pizza places that opened we kind of wanted to be viewed as a restaurant first that just happens to have pizza and pasta," Flit says. "We didn't want to be a spaghetti-and-meatball place."

Though nearly everything at Proof has Italian undertones, the executive chef and owner is adamant about serving the kind of seasonal cuisine he and his fellow cooks are accustomed to. Thus, together with his friends -- chef de cuisine Matt DePante and sous-chef/pastry chef Malcolm Prude -- Flit will regularly switch up the restaurant's menu, focusing on what's fresh. A fitting example is the aforementioned cauliflower and potato soup, which was listed as a special on a recent evening.

One item that will always be available is the classic Margherita pizza. Flit refers to Proof's pies as "Neapolitan style" because of the strict guidelines one must adhere to in order to meet official Neapolitan pizza requirements. That said, the dough used is Grade 00, the best you can get; after preparation, it's thrown into a 900-degree wood-burning oven for 90 seconds, per Neapolitan code.

Like the dough, the mozzarella is made in house, and the tomato sauce is a product of San Marzano tomatoes. Then there's some extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, and basil -- the green in the Italian-flag-colored pizza.

The result is a Margherita with the requisite thin, deliciously crisp crust and light tomato sauce. But the slices of mozzarella don't dissolve thoroughly enough into the sauce, and they're a tad rubbery.

Four other pizzas are proffered, including one with oxtail. Flit came up with the idea while prepping for a pre-opening dinner party. He had a black-garlic purée lying around from the lamb rib starter and decided to use it as a pizza base. Then, as a cost-saving alternative to short rib, he added thyme-infused oxtail to the pie and caramelized yellow onions for some sweetness.

Flit successfully pulled all the elements together for a finished product with myriad assertive textures and flavors. It's no wonder the pizza is Proof's top seller.

Interestingly enough, none of the three chefs has a background in pizza-making. Flit and DePante attended New York's French Culinary Institute. Prude worked at Bourbon Steak. So how did they learn? "Lots of practice, reading, and YouTube videos," Flit says.

If you can, grab a seat on the enclosed terrace. It's calm, cozy, and candlelit, and the music ranges from Mariah Carey to reggae. Couples in their 30s and 40s swap plates, while inside a young pair celebrates an occasion with parents and grandparents. Decor-wise, the interior is simple, with wood furnishings and bright large-scale artworks by local talent Eduardo Machado.

Nothing on the regular menu exceeds $20. The goal is for diners to try an appetizer, pasta, pizza, and dessert. Making a selection isn't easy, but the helpful waiters wearing jeans and Proof tees are well-versed in the offerings.

Among the best selections was the homemade angel hair pasta featuring crab, Calabrian chilies, and lemon breadcrumbs. The flavorful meat of the shellfish paired perfectly with the acidic lemon, while the spiciness added a kick. At once light and decadent, the effortless dish will make you question whether you're at a high-end, white-tablecloth restaurant instead of one with metal picnic tables.

When they're away from the wood-burning oven, Flit and Prude run a made-to-order online sweets shop with Flit's sister Olivia. Prude is the chef at Xavier's Macarons, and no matter the season, there'll always be a macaron ice-cream sandwich on Proof's dessert list. In November, an extra-large pistachio macaron held vanilla ice cream with toasted pistachios and pistachio oil. The pristine treat seen on virtually every table was crumbly, sweet, and exquisite. This month, Prude is serving a brown-sugar-spiced macaron with toasted-cinnamon ice cream.

What Proof does best -- and it's no small feat -- is serve crowd-pleasing, flavorful food that's not cloying in the least. That is the chefs' mission, and they've nailed it. The 70-seat eatery also boasts a relaxed, warm ambiance with prices the youthful neighborhood can appreciate. Midtown didn't need an Italian restaurant; it needed Proof.

  • Cauliflower and potato soup $10
  • Margherita pizza $12
  • Oxtail pizza $14
  • Angel hair with crab $17
  • Pistachio macaron ice-cream sandwich $8

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