Restaurant Reviews

Sunset Harbour's La Moderna Is Newest Entry to Hottest Neighborhood

Miami is awash in forgettable Italian restaurants. It's as though a factory line perpetually stamps out carbon copies offering parmigiana this and marinara that. A yawn comes naturally whenever a new so-called trattoria throws open its doors promising specialties from one of Italy's idyllic regions.

The foot-wide Neapolitan pies can hold their own.

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La Moderna made its late-June debut in Miami Beach's Sunset Harbour with a different pledge. Here the light would shine equally on the bar and kitchen. Neapolitan owner Luca D'Angelo, whose holdings include La Moderna in Rome and Fifth Street's Fratelli La Bufala, imported award-winning British barman Rusty Cerven to prepare a lineup of biting, Roman-style cocktails in one of Miami's most popular neighborhoods.

Many of them follow flavor formulations similar to the ruby-red Negronis now common in any bar worthy of your attention. Here Cerven highlights assertive, astringent, and floral drinks like Aperol spritzes and Americanos.

Smartly mixed libations hide behind kitschy names like Thelma & Louise and Dr. Strangelove. The former blends hibiscus-infused Aperol with smoky Brugal rum, fresh strawberries, coconut soda water, and just the right amount of prosecco to brighten up what would otherwise be an overly assertive tumbler. The latter is a perfect hot-weather drink, with eucalyptus, St-Germain's perfume, and absinthe's anise to enliven Martin Miller's gin.

They're offered in an almost industrial space, but one closer in aesthetic to a train station than a warehouse. A riveted copper bar is the focal point, backstopped by Venetian blinds that sift light to illuminate shelves filled with spirits. Servers sporting chocolate aprons and Art Basel-ready fades glide around the room replacing flatware and topping off drinks.

La Moderna's blend of smart, easy-drinking cocktails and a functional menu makes it a welcome addition. There's a particular challenge here, though. Up the street, Lucali's crisp pizza pies dotted with tender artichoke hearts reign supreme. Around the corner, Sardinia Enoteca Ristorante offers a lineup of pristine handmade pastas.

Still, La Moderna's gnocchi are fine competition. The pillowy potato dumplings are lathered in a basil pesto with a piney perfume. Milky burrata lends some richness. Sugary cherry tomatoes, cooked confit to concentrate their flavor, are slightly acidic gems that make the final bite impossible to ignore.

A panzanella salad also shows off the smarts of chef Manuel Lanni, who previously helmed the kitchen at Rome's La Moderna. More than a half-dozen plump shrimp are tangled among shreds of frisella bread — twice-baked loaves from Naples that are soaked in vinegar and tossed with tomato and celery curls. The sweet crustaceans are an apt match for the salad's fruity olive oil and sharp vegetables.

The foot-wide Neapolitan pies can also hold their own. Dough is proofed for 70 hours, kneaded on a slab of Carrara marble, and plunged into a 900-degree Stefano Ferrara brick oven. One pie is layered with a gossamer tissue of San Daniele prosciutto that salts and slightly sweetens a deeply tangy, acidic tomato sauce that also includes streaks of creamy buffalo mozzarella.

Elsewhere, the menu is less precise. Delicate marigold-orange zucchini blossoms are mummified in a bland, dense doughnut camouflaged as tempura batter. Even tangy goat cheese filling can't overcome the crust's floury dryness.

Making them edible requires constant dousing in a piquant anchovy-caper sauce that alone is a perfect condiment. Four Australian lamb chops arrive underseasoned and a bit on the thin side, which makes their medium-rare centers all the more impressive. Unlike the zucchini flowers, which have a sauce to bail them out, bland fingerling potatoes and sautéed spinach leave the lamb to drown in its own boredom.

What makes La Moderna's occasional misstep most concerning is that the restaurant's location leaves little room for error. The Pubbelly empire lurks around the corner, and two better-known spots are even closer. All it takes is one bad plate to send new customers back to their old favorite. The hurdles are high, and all of them will need to be cleared for this place to succeed.

La Moderna
1874 Bay Rd., Miami Beach; 786-717-7274; Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. to midnight.

  • Panzanella $15
  • Fiori di zucca $17
  • Gnocchi $17
  • Rack of lamb $34
  • San Daniele pizza $20

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson