In Italy, where I’ve eaten some of my most memorable meals, what’s on the plate often dazzles. But it’s also the experience of being genuinely welcomed that makes me feel so good. I remember a jet-laggy night in Bari when my family knocked on the door of a restaurant only to find it closed for the evening.
“Piacere,” the wife said, urging us in with a smile. “A pleasure.”
Her husband had a bottle of Primitivo on the table before we could object and plates of butteriest knots of burrata we’d ever tasted. It was our best meal all summer, made more enjoyable thanks to the couple’s real Italian hospitality.
I’ve compiled five similarly welcoming Italian spots in Miami — plus a gem in Hollywood — that range from red-sauce casual to special-occasion treats. What bonds them is the experience they serve alongside their most popular dishes featured here. Just don’t show up after closing; I can’t guarantee you’ll get a meal. Then again, you never know. (In no particular order.)
Miami River District
Most good restaurants will tell you that the customer is king, but at Crust, Chef-Owner Klime Kovaceski takes it further: “Our customer is our God,” he said. This kind of reverence creates happy guests, many of whom have followed Kovaceski for decades, from his days at Trio on the Bay and Crystal Cafe. Proving you don’t have to be Italian to know hospitality, Macedonian-born Kovaceski and his Australian wife, Anita, have found a groove in satisfying food and attentive service by the Miami River.
“I’m not sure how to do this,” Anita confided, but “Klime is teaching me, and everything works.”
Though Crust started as mainly a pizza place, the restaurant has evolved into a complete menu with gigantic portions. A favorite, the Chicken Parm, features three tender white-meat cutlets breaded and lightly fried to a golden brown and served with a thin layer of mozzarella over al dente spaghetti and a tangy red sauce.
668 NW Fifth Street, Miami; 305-371-7065; crust-usa.com.
2. TOSCANA DIVINO
A step into this gleaming Mary Brickell Village restaurant feels like entering an elegant Florentine boutique. But instead of a snooty salesgirl, you find a welcoming hostess.
“Our main priority is the relationship with people,” owner Mauro Bortignon said. “Many of our customers have become truly our best friends.”
Chef Jeff Maxfield turns out a number of exceptional dishes, but his signature Pici Senesi — handrolled spaghetti tangled with velvety duck ragu and pecorino — “speaks to our daily dedication to consistency, tradition and creating food with love,” Bortignon said.
900 S. Miami Avenue, Miami; 305-371-2767; toscanadivino.com.
Even on your first visit to this relative newcomer on Miracle Mile, you feel like an old friend. Tall and handsome co-owner Beto DiCarlo greets everyone with cheek kisses, bear hugs, pats on the back and a charming smile. Born in the Bronx but raised in Miami Beach, he’s grown up in the restaurant biz. He and dad Emilio owned Cafe Ragazzi in Surfside for two decades. Now, he and partner Sergio Tarantino give customers a sense of home.
“We are so grateful for all our friends,” said DiCarlo, a natural-born host. Fratellino’s handmade Porcini Pappardelle with slivers of meaty mushrooms and lots of freshly grated parmesan is as comforting and pure as one of his embraces.
264 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 786-452-0068; facebook.com/FratellinoRistorante1.
A reincarnation of the beloved TiramesU, which had a 17-year run on Lincoln Road, the new TiramesU is a welcome addition South of Fifth. You’re likely to see veteran restaurateur Graziano Sbroggio, head of the Graspa Group (Midtown Oyster Bar, Spris, Salumeria 104, Segafredo), or his partner, Valeria Longoni, shaking hands, smiling and leading guests to their seats.
“It’s the ability to make every customer feel like we are here just for them, to make their experience unforgettable with simple things, excellent food and attentive service,” Sbroggio said. Chef Fabrizio Pintus has added lots to the menu but also turns out classics like Spaghetti alle Vongole with a delicate, herby broth.
101 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach; 305-532-4538; tiramesu.com.
5. SAPORE DI MARE
It’s a family affair at this seafood-centric Italian restaurant, which has seats for about 40 people plus a new back patio. Wife-husband team Giorgia Calabrese and Matteo Paderni (ex-owner of Ni.Do) run the place with his sister Veronica Paderni. “We love the people who come here,” Veronica said. “They want a real Italian experience and are great drinkers and food lovers.”
Veronica or her brother are always on the floor, dishing up laughs as well as fantastic specials. She explains each ingredient on the menu as though she herself pressed the olive oil from Liguria or smoked the salt from Cyprus. All their crudos are wow-worthy, but the glass-thin Branzino Carpaccio over sheer sheets of green apple takes me to the Adriatic coast. The chalkboard menu also includes exquisite hand-hewn pastas from Roman-born Chef Walter Mancini.
3111 Grand Avenue, Coconut Grove; 305-476-8292; saporedimaremiami.com.
6. SARDELLI ITALIAN STEAKHOUSE
“We built a nice reputation while we were around these last 40 years,” said Mamma Carmen Sardelli, who helped run the now-shuttered Fulvio’s 1900.
Today, you can find her greeting customers and hear her voice on the other end of the phone at Sardelli Italian Steakhouse, helmed by son Fulvio Jr. There is no sign on the Mediterranean-looking townhouse, yet guests find their way to the burnished wood, crystal and crisp white linens that await inside.
“We knew some of these kids’ grandparents,” Carmen Sardelli said of her current generation of customers. Good, old-fashioned hospitality has resulted in a loyal, long time following. So have the family’s exquisite Italian recipes. Filet Mignon with an egg poached in tomato sauce is as good as it gets.
331 Van Buren Street, Hollywood; 954-921-8331; sardellis.com.
(Photography by Felipe Cuevas | INDULGE | firstname.lastname@example.org)
This content originally appeared in the June/July 2016 issue of INDULGE, a luxury lifestyle magazine published by the Miami Herald. For more information, visit miamiindulge.com. Follow INDULGE on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.