At first glance, Petit Bistro seems a bit confused. This South Beach newbie is called “small” in French, but with some 3,000 square feet and more than 100 seats it’s actually pretty big. And despite a name that might conjure images of soupe å l’oignon gratinee and croque madame, instead it offers Italian classics like beef carpaccio with arugula and housemade focaccia.
The interior, with its whitewashed tables, black-and-white checkered floor, vintage French movie posters and antique mirrors, is as quaint as an inn in Provence — while the outside split-level patio, with hand-painted ceramic tabletops and flickering candles, is just about perfect. This movie set of a restaurant is romantic but somehow equally comfortable for families.
It’s owned by Luca Guelfi and Simona Miele, whose same-named concept in their hometown of Milan is the model for this tres-chic spot. Chef Gabriele Del Grossi is also Milanese, and it shows in his cooking, which excels in Northern Italian fare. He even tosses in some French and Asian flavors to keep things interesting.
Waiters are a nice fit for the vibe. They exude laid-back confidence while managing to be attentive, professional and knowledgeable. Ours, also Italian, was quick with recommendations and good humor.
Execution can be a bit less predictable. For example, we had a stellar lunch a few weeks ago with an almost platonic ideal of a hamburger on a toasted, crusty bun with perky lettuce, deeply fragrant tomato slices and melted Swiss cheese. Add to that a mound of some of the most perfectly puffed French fries I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting fat on. Their rendition of a Nicoise salad — yes, yes, I know a French dish — did omit the namesake olives, but the romaine was so crisp, the tuna of such good quality and the veggies so bright and uniformly chopped that I couldn’t help but eat every last bit in the bowl — something I rarely do.
All the salads, including a gorgeous one with raw threads of artichoke piled high and layered with see-through sheets of crystally aged Parmesan, are lightly dressed and stunningly composed.
Dinner can be uneven. On one visit, I sampled a gorgeous bowl of al dente pasta, the wide tubes known as paccheri with tiny, tender, sweet, bite-size, butterflied shrimp and anchovies balanced by earthy bits of artichoke. However, the macaroni carbonara was not all there. Literally. Ribbons of fatty, smoky guanciale did not redeem the blah noodles that tasted of nothing so much as salty water. The only explanation is that the chef forgot to sauce it.
A fantastic and large-enough-to-share appetizer of octopus tossed with red potatoes and tiny, tasty Taggiasche olives is lovely, as is the classic vitello tonnato with a creamy sauce.
Daily specials, especially fresh seafood, are usually worth a try. But many menu standards like steak with green peppercorn sauce over a mound of creamy, smooth mashed potatoes are successes, too.
For dessert, don’t miss the frozen sabayon with roasted almonds that nearly disappeared from the table before I could score two bites.
Yes, Petit is a bit quirky with its multi-culti menu, but these are smart people trying to create a neighborhood hit. And while they’re working out the kinks, I say a glass of wine from the nicely edited Italo-centric list, fresh baked bread and a beautiful salad in one of the Beach’s most relaxed settings is just fine.