3.5 stars for Dena Marino's Italian MC Kitchen in the Design District

Dena Marino is a name I had heard for years before I put a bite of her food in my mouth. Respected friends and colleagues told me I had to eat at her places in Aspen, Colo. Then she came to town to chef at Danny DeVito’s now-defunct Italian eatery, but left before I got a chance to make a reservation. At last, she is cooking in her own Miami restaurant, MC Kitchen in the old Fratelli Lyon space. Everyone who raved about her food seemed equally impressed with her as a person: warm, generous, nurturing, charming. And her modern, sometimes whimsical, take on Italian cooking is similarly disarming and inviting. From her arena kitchen, Marino turns out miraculously flavored dishes that inspire and satisfy.

Business partner Brandy Coletta (the C in MC) can take credit for the concept and design, and Marino’s husband, Marcus Wade, does the front of the house. The bar scene gets feisty with herb- and spice-accented cocktails that drink like a meal. The fantastic wine list with more than 450 bottles includes fun picks such as a Brooklyn label along with trophy Italians. There’s a super selection of craft beers, too.

Ambience: The space is welcoming, transformed with light, airy touches such as white orchids on crisp white tablecloths and a wall sculpture of flittering yellow butterflies against wooden wall slats. Seats are deep and cozy, sunlight fills the room in daytime, and soulful music (Ray Charles, Otis Redding) is at just the right volume.

What Worked

  • An inaugural winter menu full of comforting dishes from ribollita (Tuscan bread soup) and hand-rolled pastas to grilled meats and soothing braised fish
  • Piadina – petite, round breads cooked in the stone oven then piled high with grilled chicken with crispy slips of pancetta, ripe avocado and lemon aioli (pictured)
  • Bucatini alla carbonara with perfectly sauced long, open tubes of spaghetti, a perfectly coddled egg bursting with an orange-yellow yolk and freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Tiny twizzles of trofie sauced with subtle pesto & hints of oregano that add tang to sweet basil
  • Rich, white-sauced spinach lasagna baked into a bubbly casserole with way more house-made fennel sausage and cheese than spinach
  • Octopus roasted until bronzed
  • Perfectly bitey black risotto.
  • Two plump langoustines, heads and tails intact, baked over a bed of polenta, then spiked with bits of spicy green chile and cooled with threads of bittersweet orange zest
  • Stunning halibut crudo in citrus dressing showered with shaved hearts of palm, celery and microgreens
  • Sprightly, albeit over-salted, salads
  • Generously main courses
  • New York strip steak with gently sautéed spinach, an intense, winey bone-marrow sauce and irresistible rosemary fries
  • A fantastically fresh, moist and tender gently braised grouper fillet served with little triangles of spicy Calabrese sausage, velvety broccoli rabe greens and a briny clam sauce mellowed by a touch of cream
  • Heavenly rustic strawberry cobbler in a crumbly crostata-like crust
  • “Light as just-fluffed laundry” coconut panna cotta drizzled with marsala-drenched brown figs