Forgive me if I don’t get too excited about another fancy Italian hotspot on South Beach with $25 pastas and models that moonlight as waitresses. This one, Cavalli Restaurant & Lounge on Ocean Drive, has cheetah, zebra and leopard spots of the famed Florentine designer Roberto Cavalli to lend some style.
Honestly, it seems like an elaborate scheme to sell his booze. Curvaceous Cavalli vodka bottles are displayed around the restaurant, and Cavalli’s wines dominate the list. There’s even a $450 cocktail with Perrier-Jouët Belle Époque and Louis XIII Cognac, but I didn’t think my editors would swing for that.
This is not to say that the food is not good. It is. Competent, for the most part, if unexciting.
The menu is an appealing selection of Italian classics with a few modern twists to keep things interesting. However, there is not a single thing I would rush back for — especially not after the bad attitudes thrust upon us from surrounding diners and even some staff.
You would do well to get a table out on the open terrace facing the street. In the less-desirable back room where the banquets are too low for the tables, we were surrounded by parties of loud, cosmo-drinking, iPhone-snapping, gum-chewing diners who asked a busser to lean across our table to shoot glam photos of their crowd throughout the night.
And our waitress was about as rude. When I asked for a black napkin to replace the linty white one that was shedding on my knit pants, she sighed as if I had inquired about the cost of a table dance. She came back after we’d had our appetizers and lobbed the folded napkin on my lap, prompting my husband to ask, “Did she just throw that at you?”
Sweet runners didn’t seem to know whose dishes were whose, but they did bring lovely, toasty slices of Italian bread that is chewy, tender and dotted with big airy holes.
Some dishes are near perfection.
The Taormino salad stands out. Tufts of infant arugula and snappy fennel threads are dressed with nibs of both red and orange citrus and pea-size cubes of ricotta salata. Its dressing is astonishingly light and refreshing with hints of citrus and olive.
The Portofino risotto with a decadently creamy curry base and a smattering of fresh red Sicilian prawns might be something I crave.
An octopus carpaccio is thinly sliced, tender and gently dressed in a simple and subtle dressing of tiny diced tomatoes with caper berries.
A warm seafood salad consisting of mussels, rock shrimp, hearts of palm and briny caper slices could be a winner if not for its sinewy scallop and knobs of octopus so tough that I had to spit them into my napkin.
A been-there-done-that tower of tuna tartare ripples with richly ripe avocado and bitey micro greens. Likewise, the yellow and red beet salad topped with fried goat cheese is serviceable.
Lamb ravioli is as delicate as china but so heavy on the salt I ended up waking up in the middle of the night for water.
Speaking of water, beware. This is one of those spots where the staff surreptitiously pours water around the table after nearly every sip and then brings — and charges for — more without asking.
Main courses, including a sea bass filet and a rather blah lamb ossobuco, were overcooked and uninspired. Both gained some points for lemony zings and pretty plating.
Desserts make great company. We adored the chocolate crème brûlée with a rich, smoky flavor of fine chocolate capped by a crystalline sheet of caramel and three ruby Amarone cherries and sweet cream flakes. A coconut panna cotta was as good but in a different way: delightfully light, tropical and refreshing.
More leopard prints, costly Cavalli cocktails and beautiful people await in the upstairs lounge. Unless they serve bread and salad there, I don’t see myself being a regular.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense. Follow @MiamiHeraldFood on Twitter.