Cantina 27 ***

 

Craving Italian? Cantina 27 gives us a reason to hit mid-beach.

From left: Cantina 27 owners Davide Caldara and Luca Laborante with executive chef Luciano Sautto.
 

BY VICTORIA PESCE ELLIOTT

It's a mystery why Miami Beach has so few good, inexpensive Italian restaurants. In New York, you nearly trip over them, but on South Beach the choices are mainly over-priced, rarified Italian or gloppy red-sauce joints.
Head a little bit north, however, to Cantina 27, and you'll find that chef Luciano Sautto, a veteran of Vita and Joia, has filled the niche. In a hole in the wall adjacent to The Office, Sautto puts out delicious homemade pastas and fine grilled meat and fish at about half the price you'd pay for a mediocre meal on Ocean Drive.

Fantastic starters include carpaccio di polipo (nearly translucent sheaths of tender baby octopus in a simple lime and olive oil dressing) and an airily fried calamari with strips of zucchini and carrots that has renewed my faith in the ubiquitous dish. Bruschetta lovers will swoon at the toasty selections, from the classic tomato and basil to a Piemontese version with brie and speck (lean bacon).

Still, it is the pastas that are the real reason to come here. An $8 spaghetti al pomodoro that is thicker, denser and better than most I've had on the Beach, with a tangy, not-too-sweet sauce that tastes like garden tomatoes. Even better is a rustic penne with thick and nutty Genovese-style pesto clinging to each perfectly cooked noodle.

Or choose rigatoni with mushrooms in pink sauce, farfalle with salmon and peas in vodka sauce, gnocchi with taleggio and walnuts or delicious, hand-stuffed casconelli alla bergamasca -- tiny crescents of beef-filled pasta with an understated butter and sage sauce.

The only true disappointment was an overly cheesy puff of lasagna that could have used more of the tasty beef ragu and less milky ricotta for my taste. Even then, it was cooked expertly with a slightly charred crust and meltingly delicate sheets of pasta.

Grilled steaks include a decent New York strip with a toothsome chianti reduction and a mound of perky arugula as well as a competent filet mignon with mashed potatoes and a rich mushroom sauce, both under $20.

Salads like a perky fennel and arugula in a lemony dressing were fine except for a house number that seemed straight from the bag.

Friendly owners Davide Caldara and Luca Laborante do a great job of keeping up even when the place gets busy, as it does with a mostly E.U. crowd after 9 o'clock.

The moderately priced, all-Italian wine list offers a dozen glasses starting at $7. Bottles begin at $28 for a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Terre di Morro and go up to $99 for a rare and intriguing 1999 Brunello di Montalcino Il Poggiolo. Many of the wineries represented are little-known here, but the knowledgeable staff is happy to help.

Sweets were another happy surprise. The unflashy tiramisu, a slender slice of creamy and potent espresso-tinged cake, renewed my interest in an overdone dessert I swore off years ago. Mango and lemon sorbets (made elsewhere) make a refreshing ending, especially for a meal eaten outside on the gritty sidewalk.

The biggest drawback to this otherwise great find is the setting. Inside an oddly shaped room, the half-dozen candlelit tables could be intimate, but are separated only by a curtain from The Office and its noisy bar. Worse, the bathrooms the two businesses share are foul.

Still, this delightful neighborhood joint just steps from the beach would be just as appealing for the family as for a first date.

Cantina 27, 2701 Collins Ave., Miami Beach.

Rating: *** (Very Good)

Contact: 305-673-5241; cantina27miamibeach.com

Hours: 6 p.m.-1 a.m. daily.

Prices: Appetizers, antipasti $7-$10; pasta $8-$15; entrees $13-$20; desserts $7.

FYI: Metered street parking free after 6 p.m. Beer and wine only; corkage $25. AX, MC, VS.

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