The old El Vato tequila bar’s sparkly red vinyl booths are still here, but black-and-white photos celebrating la dolce vita now adorn the walls, and pasta dominates the menu at La Gazzetta, an Italian addition to Brickell’s bustling dining scene.
In case you had any doubt about the Italianness, there’s a little Romanesque fountain in the middle of the outdoor courtyard — next to a Smoothie King.
A tabloid newspaper doubles as the affordable menu. Hungry diners would be wise to page through it quickly and order a starter: There is no complimentary bread, and it may take the waiter awhile to search for your selections on the smart pad he uses to zap orders to the kitchen.
Fortunately, a wide selection of cured meats and cheeses makes for a respectable charcuterie board. The housemade burrata, once it shook off its refrigerator chill, was buttery and creamy. Our enthusiasm for it was dampened only by the cold, chewy toasted bread that accompanied it. Less impressive: the wan and waxy mozzarella, which was a pale, bland companion for sweet-salty slices of prosciutto San Daniele.
Three golfball-size meatballs made for a well-textured appetizer, but a small dollop of ricotta tucked in the middle was not the creamy cloud we desired. The sad, brown-tinged leaf of basil on top and the bland pomodoro sauce doomed the dish.
Lobster ceviche, one of nine cold fish and meat starters, was pleasantly seasoned with mango and coriander, but the lobster was tough and stringy.
Nine thin-crust pizzas were personal-size and came with exotic toppings, such as Asian BBQ pulled pork, ahi tuna sashimi, smoked salmon and black truffles. The pizza topped with grilled sirloin and gorgonzola was a standout, with generous, slightly rare strips of beef and chunks of pungent cheese.
More than a dozen entrees pull from land and sea. Our favorite: the whole, 1-pound branzino, deboned and lightly grilled, skin-on, accompanied by a creamy lemon sauce and a generous helping of snappy asparagus. Kudos to the kitchen for cooking the 10-ounce New York strip medium rare, as requested, but the bernaise sauce was much too thick and the “truffle” fries were so lightly dusted that they lacked flavor.
Pasta portions thoughtfully come in two sizes, but we were underwhelmed by the penne vodka, which tasted suspiciously like store-bought sauce. Shrimp with lemon quinoa, one of the higher-priced entrees, came to the table cold, with even colder chimichurri sauce swirled on top. We didn’t mind the chill on a warm evening, but it would have been nice to have been warned by the waiter.
The redeeming desserts are cold, too, but the small confections in mini-Mason jars are fun and flavorful. Dark chocolate mousse with hazelnut pearls on top is a rich treat. The blueberry coulis panna cotta and tiramisu also were pleasers.
Service is basic, but attentive, partly because there are so few diners. The use of the smart pad becomes even more awkward at the end of the meal, as your server hovers over the table while you decide which tip bracket to punch on the screen.
A three-hour happy hour every night at the lovely wood bar and thrifty lunch specials with soup, salads and sandwiches may be La Gazzetta’s saving grace. But it’s going to take more than three coins in a fountain for a return trip here.