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.