You can ignore most of the lengthy menu at Siena Tavern, the pricey Italian spot on the corner of Washington Avenue and Fifth Street.
It's not that the perfectly crusted pizzas aren't worth your attention. They are. So too are the crudos: six thick, bright-tasting slices of pearly, meaty hamachi dressed with sweet, aged balsamic vinegar and spicy jalapeño hoops. But the pastas sing the loudest. A lineup of perfectly textured noodle dishes is made daily by two dedicated cooks. Each is tossed in a smart combination of ingredients and deserves a restaurant of its own.
Take the orecchiette, Italian for "ears." The dish is composed of little dimpled rounds. It starts by grinding prosciutto di parma into a loose sausage with fennel and garlic. This is sautéed with a handful of peppery watercress and then combined with the pasta and a splash of veal jus to create a light but luxurious sauce. The resulting dish is far more complex than its few ingredients let on.
If money were no issue for Fabio Viviani, the chef and face of Chicago-based DineAmic Group's 220-seater, he would offer but five dishes, mostly pasta. "I would do three kinds -- one gnocchi, one ravioli, one fresh pasta -- and a lobster and a steak," he says.
Viviani, who is 36 years old, was born in Florence and took his first job at age 11 as an overnight baker. He wanted to help his mother pay medical bills. He entered culinary school at age 15 and opened his first restaurant at 19. He would go on to open six others in Italy before decamping for California in 2005, when his homeland's economy began tanking. His good looks, effusive charisma, and Italian accent (making him a top attraction among female food-fest attendees) helped propel him to fame on the fifth season of Bravo's hit reality cooking show, Top Chef. He finished third during a 2008 run in New Orleans, was voted fan favorite, and has been a bona fide food celebrity ever since.
His latest project and first foray into Miami is an inviting, dimly lit spot that opened two months ago in the yawning space once occupied by Jeffrey Chodorow's China Grill. It's chic enough for groups destined for a nearby club but sufficiently intimate for romance. Oversize charcoal banquettes fill most of the dining room. A handful of them in the center are illuminated by floating orbs that hang from a ceiling filled with ornate medallions. A communal table stands in front of a weathered wooden pizza bar, where the offerings are written neatly on chalkboards.
The fare here could be called a survey of Italian cuisine. There's a bit of every part of the boot. Along with the pizza and pasta are salads, a selection of cheese and cured meats, a brief list of appetizers, a mozzarella bar, and seven substantial main plates.
The sole problem: Too many such menus exist in Miami and South Beach. Siena Tavern sits atop the pack of identical, nonspecific Italian restaurants.
It's often repeated that in Miami Beach, restaurants must be everything to everyone in order to pay the bills. However, in recent years, the island has seen the birth of tightly focused, ingredient-driven menus (the Dutch, Macchialina, Lucali) that have been successful without following the old mantras. Siena Tavern could be one of them. Viviani, who wouldn't divulge the space's rent, says he's not in business to feed his ego, even though he has the ability to both craft dishes and offer service far above the competition's.
Such is evident in a pair of plates that smartly employ the toothsome grain farro. In an appetizer, it's cooled and combined with succulent Key West pink shrimp, delicate squid pieces, roasted red pepper, celery crescents, and torn basil. A tangy vinaigrette made of mustard, grapefruit juice, and honey adds just enough acid to complement the seafood and brighten the earthy kernels. Later, a mound of warmed farro risotto studded with meaty oyster mushrooms and sweet sun-dried tomato slivers props up a succulent lamb shank that's braised in veal stock for at least 12 hours. It's a lighter way to enjoy osso buco without feeling bad about savoring the glorious, gelatinous marrow hiding inside each bone.
Another of Siena's pasta highlights is the gnocchi, a dish Viviani prepared ad nauseam during his small-screen stint. The little potato-and-flour dumplings are neither overly chewy nor mushy, but they do transform into a luscious, velvety slurry. The rich sauce is a classic crowd pleaser made of ground black truffles, butter, cream, and chicken broth, all topped with fragrant fried sage.
The antipasti coccoli is a fun, do-it-yourself choice. Four spheres of lightly fried dough that fall somewhere between beignets and brioche rest on a wooden board layered with prosciutto and stretchy-creamy stracchino cheese rubbed with pesto. Simply break open a roll, pack it with some meat and cheese, and enjoy. Few things are more pleasurable, and more Italian, than good bread, meat, and cheese.
Such simplicity is what makes Italian cuisine so special. It was the maxim of legendary Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan, who died late last year. The focus on a few, very good ingredients prepared with care is obvious at Siena Tavern, even with the sprawling menu. The need and desire to please a crowd and run a successful business is understandable, but Viviani and his backers are capable of much more. Perhaps one day he'll get the chance to make that five-plate passion project a reality.
- Coccoli $16
- Farro salad $16
- Hamachi crudo $14
- Orecchiette $22
- Gnocchi $21
- Osso buco $42