Via Verdi Cucina Rustica Lends Italian Charm to the Upper Eastside

Outfitted in black suits without ties, Fabrizio Carro and Cristiano Vezzoli dart from table to table to inquire about their patrons' meals and to extol the virtues of various regional Italian dishes. As they maneuver between the restaurant's interior and the terrace, their tousled black curls and matching facial scruff render them virtually indistinguishable.

It's Saturday night, and the canopied exterior of Via Verdi Cucina Rustica is full. In the unadorned, candlelit space, elderly couples, 40-somethings with small children, and pretty young things appear at ease. They might as well be lounging in a friend's backyard. When either Fabrizio or Cristiano approaches their table with a cheery "buona sera," they sit up straighter and respond enthusiastically.

Fabrizio's twin brother, Nicola, is behind the scenes helming the kitchen. Clad in an apron and toque, the third partner pops out once during the night and then quickly vanishes. Both Carro boys are trained chefs, but when it came time to open their own place, Fabrizio decided he was better-suited for the front of the house.

"It's important to be able to communicate our passion to customers," he says after comparing the 3-month-old restaurant to an infant.

Like a newborn, it's the number one priority, he says. Thus, on any given night at Via Verdi, all three partners are present. It's no easy feat considering the 38-year-old twins maintain executive chef status at Quattro, a Northern Italian restaurant on Lincoln Road.

Indeed, it was that opportunity at Quattro that propelled them to leave their hometown of Alessandria, a city in Italy's Piedmont region, and immigrate to America. The restaurant's developer owned a vineyard nearby, and in 2005 he persuaded the Carros to take their extensive knowledge of the area's cuisine to South Beach.

Vezzoli, age 37, befriended the brothers when he managed the bar at another Lincoln Road place. From Brescia, Italy, the seasoned mixologist is now charged with Via Verdi's drink program. It boasts plenty of Italian and global wines, many in the wallet-friendly $30 range.

There's also a separate outdoor bar area dubbed "Vezzoli Sixty-Nine," where folks can sip unique martini interpretations (think espresso, tiramisu, and watermelon). During the daily happy hour, cocktails and certain wines are priced at $6.

The bar lends a hint of glamour, but otherwise, the Upper Eastside spot is thoroughly laid-back. Having experienced working in Miami Beach, the trio chose to open on Biscayne Boulevard at NE 69th Street specifically to be close to Miamians who live here year-round. Their goal is to make Via Verdi a second, more delicious kitchen for locals.

During a recent visit, I was seated outside in a slightly elevated area where the foliage-covered fence that buffers the terrace from busy Biscayne doesn't extend quite high enough. The result: an unobstructed view of the traffic-lined boulevard. It was a bit of an eyesore, and the street noise was nettlesome.

When my table was left unattended for 20-plus minutes, my excitement waned. Fortunately, once the waitress arrived, her knowledge of the menu and upbeat demeanor almost made up for the wait. She pointed me to the eggplant parmigiana, and I obliged.

It's a straightforward, quintessential Italian dish, yet one that's often clumsily rendered. At Via Verdi, the organic eggplant boasts the perfect consistency and blends well with the slightly sweet marinara sauce. Though this starter is filling, it isn't overwhelming.

When I ordered the rabaton al forno, the server informed me that it was a traditional pasta from Alessandria. Chef Nicola fashioned his gnudi (a type of gnocchi) out of ricotta and spinach, dusted on some thyme, and baked it in the oven with burrata.

The warm, blistered cheese proved the ideal base for the tender green batons, which were coated with a thin layer of fresh tomato sauce and sprinkled with Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's the sort of comfort food that can incite a fight over who gets the last bite. Less assertive, but scrumptious nonetheless was the Taleggio and Fontina infused tortelli.

Next came the Mediterranean octopus. Nicola steams it first to rid it of any chewiness and then heats it on a charcoal grill. Accented with chickpeas and sweet cherry tomatoes, the octopus is then neatly arranged on a mound of mild and velvety chickpea purée. This dish is a fitting example of how Via Verdi bounces from casual to more refined cuisine.

A joke between the twins, the "non osso buco" is braised using the same technique as the popular Milanese entrée, but Nicola uses beef short ribs rather than veal. He cooks them with onions, carrots, and red wine until the bones fall off and then plates the generous hunk of meat with those same vegetables. It doesn't take long for the veggies to become redundant, and the short ribs, while good, are a tad tough.

The branzino sounds like it has everything going for it: It's roasted in the oven with juicy Manila clams from Maine, drizzled with white wine, and presented with lightly cooked cherry tomatoes. But alas, the tasty accoutrements couldn't save the flaky white fish from its bland fate.

Dessert was a vanilla bean panna cotta whose top layer consisted of homemade passionfruit sauce. The sharp burst of citrusy flavor couldn't have come at a better time.

By 9:30 p.m., the street noise had died down significantly, but for a while I had been too consumed by the food's bold flavors to realize it. And though the rustic dishes are simple, there's a quiet elegance about Via Verdi that ensures it won't fall into the oversaturated category of average Italian joints.

Such intimate restaurants are hard to come by lately, but here are three proprietors who believe the dining experience is enhanced when there's a relationship between owner and patron. Their dedication is almost a guarantee that Via Verdi will only improve.

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