My friends in Miami Beach have some strict rules about where they'll dine in the city. Ocean Drive is pretty much out of the question. So is much of Lincoln Road. Too touristy, they say.
But mention a restaurant on the west side, and they're game. That's a good part of the reason restaurateur Antonio Gallo and executive chef Pietro Vardeu have been so successful with their Sardinia Enoteca Ristorante. They were trailblazers when they opened the restaurant in 2006. Just last week, the New York-based Zagat called the west side of Miami Beach one of the country's 20 hot food neighborhoods.
Since Sardinia appeared, at least six restaurants have opened within walking distance. All attract more local diners than tourists.
Sardinia's allure starts inside the door. Pots of fresh rosemary line the windowsill. A wall of wine divides the 96-seat dining room. Simple wooden tables are set with mismatched dinnerware. Service is of the professional variety, with seasoned staff members who speak with accents from across the world.
At lunch one day, I tasted some of the best gazpacho I've had in years. Served classically with a drizzle of fruity olive oil, it was part of the three-course $23 Miami Spice menu. Likewise, veal meatballs ($14 a la carte) were tender and not encumbered with too much seasoning. The accompanying braised fennel was a nice match. We had rigatoni with peas and hot and sweet Italian sausages ($10/$16 a la carte) and pappardelle with house-made ricotta, tomatoes and black olives. They were both outstanding. Don't come here unless you plan on ending with the strawberry tiramisu ($9 a la carte). The addition of strawberries is just the update that tiramisu needed.
Lunch was perfect.
At dinner, we were eager to try the house-made mozzarella and burrata, which we had as part of something called the Grand Tasting ($32): six kinds of cheese with a choice of two vegetables. We chose roasted cherry tomatoes, which were just barely roasted, and roasted asparagus, which was nicely charred. A special tuna tartare ($15) was mixed with mango, but the fruit was underripe and not to our liking. I prefer my mango sweet and tender. Ravioli ($10/$16), stuffed with potato, pecorino and mint and served in tomato sauce, was mushy from being overcooked.
Order the lemon-and-rosemary-stuffed chicken ($22) if you like big, fall flavors. Branzino ($29), baked in a salt crust, was superbly tender. But then, veal scallopini ($26) with wild mushrooms and asparagus tips came along. The veal was tough, and we cold taste undercooked flour. Not good.
But all was made better with the strawberry tiramisu.
I don't doubt that locals find their favorites on this menu. If I lived in the neighborhood, I know I'd find mine. Since Sardinia is open form noon to midnight daily, I can see stopping by for a late-night, wood-fired pizza or a glass of wine from a deep but well-priced list. So successful has Sardinia been in Miami Beach that Gallo and Vardeu opened a second location in Nashville late last year.
Sardinia Enoteca Ristorante
1801 Purdy Ave., Miami Beach
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: City meters or $15 valet