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Day-tripper? Point the car toward Oltremare

Three stars for Islamorada's new Oltremare Ristorante.

 

★★★

Until a few years ago, I'd never spent a night in the Florida Keys. I don't remember when and where that changed, but with summer in full swing, I can think of no better escape than the Upper Keys. Islamorada is about as far as I care to go. Any farther south, and I feel as if I've entered an episode of "Duck Dynasty" or gotten caught up in a flash mob of souvenir-searching cruise passengers.

I love the Upper Keys because of their small-town sophistication and well-worn cool. You're never far from gazing out over the horizon, and you'll inevitably sit in a bar on far too many occasions.

If you need proof that the economic rebound has been good for the Keys, drive your car to Amara Cay Resort. All vestiges of the former Hampton Inn have been stripped away. The lobby is done up like a midcentury modern resort, with papasan-style chairs suspended from the ceiling, green vases as tall as an 8-year-old and oversize wicker light fixtures.

The 60-seat Oltremare Ristorante is in a corner of the open lobby, where guests sit on some of the most stylish and comfortable armchairs I can remember. They're dark-gray, resin wicker with adjustable cushions.

As its name suggests, Oltremare is an Italian restaurant. The word means "overseas," cleverly named not just for its Overseas Highway location but also for the inspiration its location provides to chef Dario Olivera. Diners come to the Keys for fresh seafood, and the chef doesn't disappoint.

For starters, there's grilled octopus ($18) served with tomatoes, wilted kale, olives, potatoes and white beans tossed in shallot vinaigrette. Frito misto ($18) is made with Cubanelle peppers, fennel and green beans, as well as rock shrimp and calamari. It comes with simple romesco and somehow manages to taste greaseless, despite its time in the fryer.

Caesar salad ($12) gets an upgrade with sweet gem lettuce, grilled hearts of palm, toasted quinoa and a tostone. Very nice.

A half-dozen pasta dishes are on the menu, including Cedar Key clams and tagliatelle ($28) and rock shrimp cavatelli ($28). But if you're a fan of carbonara ($25), the fettuccine can't be beat with a nice dusting of ground black pepper along with guanciale, pecorino and egg yolk.

My favorite main dish was also the simplest: Poor Man's Surf and Turf ($26). It's a bun-less burger — we used to call it "chopped steak" — served with fried rock shrimp, tomato and braised escarole. I've been seeing "chopped steak" on more and more menus every day. But I don't think I've ever had fried shrimp and beef on one plate. It's a nice combination. Speaking of beef, the wood-grilled strip loin ($45) with roasted shallots was just fine, but not particularly well trimmed. Luck of the draw, I suppose.

Back to seafood, the crispy whole yellowtail ($36) was on the small side and a bit salty. A swordfish special ($39) was not particularly memorable.

What are memorable are desserts, a classic tiramisu ($10), accompanied by amaretto cookie and a sweet goat-cheese tart ($10) with berries and mango puree.

If you stay in the resort, you can wake up to Oltremare's lemon poppy-seed pancakes ($12) with almond brittle, mascarpone and blueberries or amazing French toast ($13) with golden raisin, Meyer lemon crème fraîche and dark rum butter.

Be sure to check out the bar, where you'll find an artist's rendering of an unusually shaped fish lit from behind and floating against the wall. I'm told it's a "square grouper," Keys' slang for the bales of marijuana that were once frequently dropped from airplanes. No wonder everyone is so laid-back down here.

jtanasychuk@SouthFlorida.com or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SouthFlorida.com/Sup and follow him at Twitter.com/FloridaEats.

Oltremare Ristorante

80001 Overseas Highway, Amara Cay Resort, Islamorada

305-664-0073, OltremareRistorante.com

Cuisine: Italian

Cost: Expensive-very expensive

Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner daily

Reservations: Suggested, but not required

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full service

Sound level: Conversational

Outside smoking: Yes

For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Parking: Complimentary

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