Last month, the three owners of Eating House and four of their employees pledged their loyalty to the restaurant by having its logo tattooed on their bodies.
Forget regretting it down the road. Right now, the crew is celebrating a semi-finalist nomination from the James Beard Foundation in the rising star chef of the year category.
The nod went to chef and co-owner Giorgio Rapicavoli, 27, who was also the first South Floridian to win TV's "Chopped." Rather than take the offer of a gig in New York, Rapicavoli used the momentum to leave his executive chef job at a small Miami Beach resort to open a pop-up restaurant. With old friend Alex Cassanova, Eating House launched 13 months ago.
At breakfast and lunch, the space was an old-fashioned Cuban coffee shop. By 5 p.m., the pair transformed the diner into a dining room by first unscrewing every bright light bulb in the ceiling. Eating House was an instant hit, but the staff got tired of the poorly outfitted kitchen and the lack of storage. Forget the chipped diner plates. They gave up in late summer, with an eye toward reopening in Coconut Grove.
Lightning struck, however, when the coffee shop's owners decided to sell, and Eating House became a fully grown restaurant. Four days before their November reopening, Rapicavoli, Cassanova, 29, and new partner Henry Hané, 31, were at Home Depot buying supplies to build tables.
Eating House represents a new style of youthful restaurateuring, built on skill and determination. With just 51 seats, the restaurant typically serves 150 people on weekend nights. Sunday brunch reservations need to be made three weeks in advance
Rapicavoli is a homegrown marvel. His dad is from Argentina. His mom is from Italy — she works for the Italian consulate — and the chef grew up eating original Italian slow food.
Sixty percent of the Eating House menu changes daily. But the dozen or so offerings always includes a dish of tomatoes ($12). These are no ordinary tomatoes. Rapicavoli starts with the best tomatoes he can find. They're tossed with lime, ginger, Vietnamese fish sauce, peanuts, herbs and freeze-dried coconut ice. If it sounds weird, it isn't. The ice stays crunchy through the wonders of liquid nitrogen. The dish was inspired by the chef's childhood love of coconut ice cream.
General Tso's oxtail ($17) happened after the chef found himself with tiny pieces of oxtail left over from another dish. The sauce is borrowed from everyone's favorite Chinese dish and served with what Rapicavoli calls rice-less fried rice. Cauliflower gets minced in the food processor. It's sauteed with carrots and shishito peppers and then gets hit with soy and sesame oil. The result is a low-carb dream.
Pasta carbonara ($23) began in the Rapicavoli household, where his mother used bacon in place of pancetta. The chef adds truffle for even more richness. I'm also taken with his Italian-accented riff on poutine ($14). He uses polenta instead of French fries. Braised short ribs and ricotta replace cheese curds. Fried chicken and "foie-ffles" ($15) — foie-gras-infused waffles — are served with candied bacon and maple syrup. They are salty, crunchy and sweet.
Almost everything served at Eating House is spot-on. But I have an aversion to those crunchy lo mein noodles that Chinese restaurants serve. Eating House serves them with perfectly fine Korean barbecue-style Brussels sprouts ($11) and topped with an egg. Sea scallops ($26) were overcooked. And the beef tartare ($14) was underseasoned. But I'm quibbling with what is one of the most-exciting kitchens in South Florida.
Proof that Rapicavoli grew up in the Miami suburbs is a dessert called dirt cup ($8). It's a chocolate-cookie-crumb children's dessert served at Tony Roma's and T.G.I. Friday's. The Eating House version is all grown up, with a whipped Nutella instead of pudding. It's served in little pots bought at IKEA. Likewise, tres leches ($7) is made with guava ice cream, cream-cheese mousse and a sauce made with guava and Cuban iron beer.
If Eating House has one problem, it's how the restaurant communicates with customers. The staffers don't answer the phone. Reservations are by email only. It can be frustrating waiting for confirmation and then having to make changes to the size of your party, as we did on one visit. The restaurant also needs a better spot for guests to check in. There's no place to stand.
But all is forgiven once you do get seated, and a server in a plaid shirt starts bringing the food while you listen to classic hip-hop from the likes of Eric B. and Biggie Smalls.
"I know what people have to go through to just to eat in this restaurant," Rapicavoli says. "There's no bigger compliment people could give than sitting down to eat here."
804 Ponce De Leon Blvd., Coral Gables
Cuisine: Eclectic small plates
Hours: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday, Sunday brunch
Reservations: Strongly suggested
Credit cards: DC, D, MC, V
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Loud when full
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Street parking