The big review: Cita’s ***

Cita's Italian Chophouse Restaurant, Desserts with ice cream - Raspberry sorbet with vanilla bean panna cotta. Photo: Roberto Koltun.

The Miami melting-pot story that brought Cita’s to Coconut Grove began when the steak-crazy, Italian-food-loving, Cuban-born owner, Ed Benitez, merged his family-owned shipping-container repair company with a publicly owned giant a couple of years ago. Cita, a nickname he called his now-grown daughters, means “appointment” in Spanish, but it’s skilled Palermo native Carlo Macaluso (De Vito South Beach, Cefalo’s) who is turning out the huge cuts of beef, abundant fresh seafood and full complement of handmade pastas. While the mood is mellow, the portions are over the top. And though authenticity is not their greatest asset, the dishes are mostly top-notch.

The hat-sized poof of bread that appears for each diner is actually a golden, English-style popover stuffed with herbs and showered in grated Parmesan. I find them dry and much less interesting than crusty Italian loaves, but this is Benitezs dream, not mine. Macaluso’s antipasti, including a trio of lemony lobster cakes topped with crème fraiche and tropical fruit compote and a bowl of tender mussels in a wine-doused broth, make for a fine introduction. Shareable salads including a super chopped number and a seasonal mix, both in a perky pinot noir dressing, are bright, fresh and satisfying. Though awfully big and pricey for a first course, pastas are mostly satisfying. Spaghetti tossed with prosciutto, peas and sweet onions is cooked al dente and gently sauced, while luscious pockets of lobster-stuffed ravioli are bathed in a light tarragon cream sauce. Less successful is sticky pappardelle that doesn’t get much help from a too-chunky sauce of cognac-spiked beef tenderloin and porcini mushrooms.

Meats — prime, dry-aged and hormone-free — are uniformly excellent. A 22-ounce, bone-in cowboy rib-eye takes top honors as an indulgence worth the $45 price tag. The center-cut filet — 12 ounces of tender, minerally, salty flesh — is bound to make any carnivore swoon. And a revelatory bone-in short rib had me in a reverie with its intense, deeply saturated wine flavoring offset by loads of rosemary and tarragon. Fish, too, is well handled. A black grouper topped with baby capers and loads of fresh lemon zest is especially recommendable. Tiny peas, diced carrot, crunchy nibs of corn and flecks of parsley make a colorful confetti of the short-grained white rice on which the perfectly sautéed fillet poses. The only flat-out loser was a tinny-tasting side of artichoke hearts Romana that I should have known better than to order out of season.

The young and affordable wine list could use some tweaking, beginning with a better by-the-glass selection. (A pinot noir, perhaps, or some Italian sparklers beyond a generic prosecco?)

Desserts range from a subdued and delicious berry panacotta floating in a sea of fresh berries to a silly cotton-candy bouffant over cheesecake stuffed with lollipops like a carnival game. A perfectly smooth, rich, foam-topped espresso ends the meal with a sweet taste, making this an appointment I am bound to make again.

Cita’s Italian Chophouse, 3176 Commodore Plaza, Coconut Grove; 305-446-2207; lunch noon-3 p.m. weekdays; dinner 5-11 p.m. Sun-Thurs, until midnight Fri, Sat; brunch 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat, Sun; appetizers $12-$21, pastas $18-$34, entrees $21-$45, sides $8, sauces and dressings $3, desserts $7-$15

FYI: Wine and beer only; corkage $25. Metered street parking; $8 valet available for dinner Wed-Sat. Reservations suggested. Miami Spice specials extended through October. AX, DN, MC, VS.

Published: 9/08

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