By Sara Liss
The goods: Waterfront dining in a strip mall in North Miami Beach? Yes, that's right. Located in the newly gussied-up Intracoastal Mall is Racks Italian Bistro and Market, an upscale pizza place with its own mini-market of Italian goods and a lively bar overlooking the water. The spacious dining room is just handsome enough to bring a date yet also comfortably casual that you wouldn't feel under dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. An ample outdoor patio offers candlelit al fresco dining but now that the humidity and mosquitoes have kicked into gear it's best to sit inside where deep leather booths, brick walls and Italian marble tabletops give the space a big-city vibe. Sinatra music greets you as walk past the frenetic open kitchen where pizzas are produced with assembly-line efficiency. The bar recently introduced a weekly “aperitivo” happy hour where from 3-7pm Monday to Friday select cocktails are $6 and the chef sends out complimentary appetizers like chicken wings or portabello fritti to those sitting at the bar.
The grub: Neopolitan style pizza and Tuscan farmhouse cooking. Owner Gary Rack, founder of Boca's Coal Mine Pizza, puts together a menu that focuses on those signature coal-fired pies while also featuring Italian staples like cheese and charcuterie platters. Prices remain firmly grounded in the casual-dining realm; salads and starters average $11, pizzas go for $12-$14 and most mains are under $20.
Executive Chef Matthew Danaher honed his skills at Vic and Angelo's in Boca and brings that same approach of boldly-flavored Italian fare with an emphasis on rustic oven-roasted dishes. Start off with a plate of salumi like the thinly-sliced mortadella and proscuitto along a creamy burrata and a sharp pecorino served with marinated cherries and honey. Pizzas are the winners here with a charred crust and dough made in house and aged for deep flavor. Each pie could easily be shared by two like the one topped with thin slices of grilled eggplant and a smoky mozzarella or the fragrant portobella made with truffle oil, gorgonzola and speck. Mains include a house-made gnocchi in San Marzano sauce and chicken or veal milanese topped with arugula and tomato. Sides like the oven-roasted potatoes seasoned with crispy garlic and orange rinds and the broccolini sauteed with raisins and pine nuts are the stuff of small Italian village restaurants.
There is possibly only one dessert to get if you are a table of four and that is the “massive chocolate cake,” a tower of chocolate layered ganache and cake that will please a team of gluttons.
Verdict: Go for the pizza, stay for the comfortable ambiance.
Racks Italian Bistro and Market, 3933 NE 163rd St, (305) 917-7225.