2 stars for Tony Mantuano's Lorenzo on South Beach

 

An uneven out-of-town tryout

lorenzo

Victoria Pesce Elliott

Lorenzo in the Redbury Hotel should be great. The elegant South Beach eatery was created by James Beard Award-winning chef Tony Mantuano, whose Michelin-starred Spiaggia in Chicago -- a favorite of President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle -- is a standard by which other Italian restaurants are measured.

Mantuano's menu here, however, is not a pasta-cutter replica of his Midwest landmark. The chef utilizes local ingredients from carambola in the scungilli to wild boar in the meaty ragu. And though there is spaghetti, as well as a red sauce-drenched meatball, most of the selections are refined, gorgeously composed but still unfussy. Like real Italian food ought to be.

The space, despite its hotel lobby setting, is cozy and still cool. Plush booths and rustic wooden tables combine to create a comfortable vibe with a hip soundtrack that spans decades and genres. Low ceilings are slung with glowing globes in red and yellow, creating a flattering light. Good-looking bartenders work the bar that is the center of the action -- when there is action, that is. In its two-plus months, it has failed to attract the kind of crowd you would expect.

On my initial try, when it was brand-new, I fell in love with the vibrant snapper crudo, as well as a brilliant octopus doused in
sweet-bitter Sambuca and grilled with buttery fingerling potatos and a nice smack of garlic and jalapeño.

A meal here is punctuated with proud punches of flavor and superior-quality ingredients. The dramatically seared bone-in rib-eye, for example, was flecked with pungent Sicilian sea salt and coarse-ground black pepper and topped with lemony parsley salad and a rich serving of bone marrow.

Good options for a big party to share include the smooth, oniony chicken-liver paté with perfectly toasted crostini or the smoky mahi spread served in a mason jar with super crisp crackers made from pizza dough flecked with black and white sesame seeds.

Handmade pastas including the light-as-fresh-spun-laundry gnocchi and linguine with sweet baby clams were lovely, too.

Pricey, African prawns were served with shells on, split down the center, scorched to black and aggressively seasoned with chile from Calabria, garlic, lemon and parsley. But their mealy texture didn't win us over.

On a more recent visit, we were disappointed not only in lackluster food, but the bizarre service.

We dubbed our server the drive-by waiter for his habit of talking to us while walking. Even as he asked a question, "Would you like coffee, espresso, decaf?" he moved on without waiting for an answer.

It became a running joke, so to speak, as we flagged him down, willing him to stay put for just a moment. And this was while the restaurant had only one other table at prime time in the middle of the week.

On that night, we had pizza that was flabby and flat without any of the expected scorch, puff or crunch. Too much semolina on the bottom meant it was like chewing on sand. An eggplant Parmigiana appetizer was an unwieldy fist-sized hunk of eggplant gasping beneath a pile of gooey mozzarella and tangy tomato sauce, while a hunk of local mahi was so undercooked its bright red bloodline was glowing and the table knife could not get through it. The zingy lime gremolata could not rescue it.

I am not sure who she, is but Christina's namesake salad seemed sad with a bland dressing, limp frisee and tiny dots of underripe avocado.

An all-Italian wine list had some uncomfortably high markups on trophy bottles, but also some nice by-the-glass options.

Desserts like a spirited tiramisu and classic gelatos are simple and satisfying if unexciting. We never did get to order our coffee.

After some investigating, I learned that the debut executive chef will be gone by the time this review runs. He is to be replaced --at least temporarily -- by a trusted sous chef from the Chicago flagship. For now, Lorenzo is very much a question mark. It could become a great addition to our Italian dining scene, but at the moment it's Just OK.

Speak Up!