For those who missed her on Bravo’s Top Chef, Carla Pellegrino is now cooking up a scene in Miami from Touché’s open kitchen. The spot above the 24-hour downtown club E11even is undeniably alluring in a gritty, urban way. Much like the edgy, tattooed chef herself.
Pellegrino, the Brazilian-born, Italian-cooking talent by way of Las Vegas, is handling the kitchen stunningly. She works hard and loud while putting out some delicious, if dated, fare. The menu is a mishmash of vintage Italian-American favorites, including Caesar salad, fried calamari, shrimp cocktail, caprese salad, veal Parmesan, and spaghetti and meatballs — plus sushi and sashimi.
The setting is one of the most dramatic and elegant in town — certainly this part of town. The intimate, 40-something-seat rooftop restaurant makes up a small section of a large, three-story, flesh-toned venue across from Club Space where teams of bouncers and valets line the parking lot.
Once through the cool open-air bar, eaters enter a plush yet understated dining room with white linen chairs, crisp tablecloths, petite orchid arrangements, wide-plank walnut floors and a glowing marble bartop.
We focused on the Italian offerings, since the idea of pairing hamachi and jalapeño with gnocchi alla Bolognese did not appeal.
Good choice. Nearly every bite of every dish we tasted was exceptional. A tight wine list includes Italian, French and California options with glasses from $9 to $13.
While a DJ spins on weekends, we had plenty of entertainment midweek watching the chef work the line. Her mouth never stops moving. She was chatting, eating, chewing gum or cursing. I heard three F bombs before our appetizers hit the table.
We forgot about the sailor talk when we saw these plates: An antipasto board could be a meal in itself with its billowy folds of prosciutto di Parma, Grana Padano cheese, spicy roasted almonds and Spanish olives. Especially with the basket of toasty rosemary focaccia.
Don’t miss Pellegrino’s outstanding meatballs, a perfect mix of pork, veal and beef gently handled. Two fist-size delicacies are served in a pool of tangy tomato sauce and showered with a chiffonade of basil and just-shaved Parmesan.
All the restrained salads are fantastic, too, including roasted beets garnished with sweet, ropey onions and bitey microgreens as well as the house salad with three lettuces, radicchio and ribbons of fennel. The arugula and endive salad had not a sliver of its promised Bartlett pear, and so-called candied walnuts had not laid eyes on a speck of sugar. Still, all were crave-worthy.
Likewise, Pellegrino’s risotto is clean comfort fare. Plump mounds of Arborio rice as fluffy as just-spun sheets surround bite-size thumbs of still-crunchy asparagus.
Meat eaters will want to indulge in a double pork chop lounging in a pool of sweet-and-sour cherry pepper sauce. The meat itself has a golden, slightly crunchy sear and juicy interior. Slender slices of veal saltimbocca shine beneath a gloss of velvety demi-glace that is somehow not greasy.
The spiffy waitstaff is professional although a little too eager, clearing plates before they are finished and pouring beer into glasses of chardonnay.
Dessert choices are, like the rest of the menu, not terribly inspired but expertly executed. Best is a rich but smooth ricotta cheesecake given kick with a potent raspberry, blueberry and strawberry compote.
As strong as the fresh-brewed espresso that finished our meal, this chef can turn out some fine food. Now, the place just needs to find an audience — and perhaps a more ambitious menu — worthy of her skill.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Follow Victoria Pesce Elliott on Twitter and Instagram: @VictoriaPesceE.