20 years in, Italian restaurant Spiga stays true to form in South Beach

Images via Spiga Italian restaurant in Miami Beach.

Happy anniversary, Spiga! Or close enough. 

Roberto Legrand has managed to do what some might deem impossible: He’s operated a steady, successful, low-key restaurant in South Beach for two decades. December will mark Spiga’s 20th anniversary.

And for all this time, he has also kept loyal customers, partners and employees, including talented executive chef Saele Cantoni, who was born halfway between Ravenna and Bologna in Italy.

If you don’t already, you should get to know this solid little Italian restaurant in the Impala Hotel at 1228 Collins Ave. Spiga can come in handy when guests are in town. It satisfies lots of tastes with its vast menu of classics, competently handled and served with genuine charm.

With just 80 seats split evenly between a handsome dining room swathed in marble and wood and the lush patio, the feeling is intimate, elegant but still relaxed — just as a Mediterranean oasis should be.

Servers suit the atmosphere with neatly pressed black uniforms and a friendly, casual manner. Our adorable, multilingual waitress gently warned my petite friend and I not to over-order.

Lighting from pendants and candles is moody and romantic. Nice jazzy tunes and starched white tablecloths add to the mood.

More than a dozen antipasti compete with as many salads for possible starters. A bread plate with house-made focaccia and brown raisin slices was nicely salted and fresh. The slices were fine for dunking into the bright, peppery green olive oil.

We were thrilled with our starters, which included a pair of plump and meaty shrimp, the size of baby lobsters, grilled with their thin shells and tails on to retain juiciness. Perky greens, giant white beans and red onion dressed with aged balsamic vinegar gave a nice, crispy contrast. So, too, a serving of perfectly petite black mussels in a heady white wine broth dotted with tomato.

It is the pasta department where this spot has gained and retained a stellar reputation. (The Miami Herald last reviewed Spiga in 1996, when it was 5 months old.) 

A lovely carbonara made with tiny cubes of diced pancetta in a rich egg sauce was done nicely al dente. Though I am always disappointed when a chef adds cream to the classic that should only be made with egg and plenty of cheese, here it was still delicious without getting too heavy.

Do not miss any of the special filled pastas or the house-made fettuccine. We sampled the shrimp and asparagus. The pasta itself is smooth, evenly rolled to a nice medium bite and cooked expertly. But why does a dish with nice, thin summer asparagus sliced in perfect little dimes use only the blunt ends and not a single tip?

Mains included a zuppa di pesce stocked with fresh and succulent mussels, clams, meaty cubes of fresh white fish and scallops. Two planks of rustic, grill-scorched toasts gently rubbed with garlic helped to finish the tomato-and-herb-flecked broth.

It’s also a rare treat to find an international wine list with decent by-the-glass options and fair prices in this touristy enclave.

While vegetables are nicely handled, the produce itself is disappointing in this age of farm to table. Arugula looked as if it came straight out of a bag, while huge hunks of pallid, food-service tomatoes were as hard as apples in the fall. Likewise, fist-size chunks of pear were hardly ripe. Grilled calamari is tender and tasty, though the limp greens take away from the overall experience. 

Desserts also are reassuringly classic. Always a good idea is the traditional Italian cheesecake, which we tried with a tangy strawberry sauce. Gorgeous and delicate tiramisu is another standard. Lighter for the season is a special panna cotta made with nectarines that we devoured in record time.

Coffees — gorgeous little cups of espresso — are made quickly and served hot.

An affordable, friendly, reliable standby is a hard thing to find in Miami Beach, where places come and go as fast as an afternoon storm. At Spiga, it’s nice to know that things stay the same.

Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Follow Victoria Pesce Elliott on Twitter and Instagram at @VictoriaPesceE.