3 stars for casual Italian eats at Cara Mia on South Beach

Cara Mia is a tiny neighborhood trattoria that is a dear addition to its South Beach neighborhood next to Whole Foods. It resembles any of the gazillion trattorias that seem to exist on every corner in New York but are in short supply in our own touristy backyard. That’s the idea, says owner Enrico Malta, a Sicily native who, with his brother, opened 40-something restaurants in New York over the past three decades and now tries his hand in the tropics. His philosophy is simple: Spende poco e mangia bene. Or, spend little and eat well.

Ambience: Cara Mia is nothing fancy. Menus are slipped into thick vinyl books like you would see in a Greek diner. Plates and glasses are the commercial-grade kind you could drop without a chip. Still, the low lighting and handsome décor might even approach romantic. Rustic terracotta floors and cozy brown wicker chairs pulled up to wooden tables make it as welcoming as a piazza in spring. The long gray marble bar is studded with willowy white, leather barstools facing a screen that plays old Fellini films. Dramatically oversized lightboxes of Italian film stars complete the quirky, modern décor.

What Worked

  • Perpetually smiling, handsome Italian waiters who are as quick with a wine suggestion as they are with a joke
  • A well-chosen, affordable Italian wine selection served by the bottle, quartino and glass
  • Lightly roasted yellow and crimson beets shaved into see-through rounds, fanned out onto a plate and topped with teeny, tender leaves of arugula, crumbled gorgonzola, crunchy bits of pancetta and a subtle sheen of dressing
  • A fantastic carpaccio of octopus and beef
  • A restrained lemony Caesar topped with crunchy housemade croutons and paper-thin sheets of crystally Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • A delicately robed strawberry and goat cheese dressing popping with fresh colors and flavor
  • Lovely, classic mellanzane alla parmigiana – discs of light and lustrous eggplant lightly dusted with flour, ever-so-gently fried, layered with a restrained hand of cheeses and touched with a thin but zesty tomato sauce
  • Beautifully cooked and gently sauched pasta
  • Decadent spaghetti alla carbonara with hunks of chewy, salty pancetta and a rich, eggy sauce
  • Linguine saporite with snappy pinky-sized shrimp, strips of smoky roasted peppers and kalamata olives
  • A luscious, bitey mushroom risotto is loaded with tender cubes of perfectly spongy Portobellos and just a hint of garlic.
  • Properly grilled daily fish special served with a nice array of vegetables including broccoli, carrots and potatoes.
  • A simple, freshly made and subtly flavored bowl of tiramisu served in an au gratin dish and showered with shavings of cocoa and quality dark chocolate