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Langoustine scampi al forno

La Dolce Bite

by Jen Karetnick | Photography by Michael Pisarri | Miami magazine | October 21, 2013

Most restaurants can’t be defined by a single, brief description, let alone one word. But Cipriani Downtown Miami, located in the Icon building behind the Viceroy, can. This venerated Italian establishment, with siblings as far-flung as Los Angeles, Ibiza and Abu Dhabi (to name only a few) is, quite simply, glamorous.

The megayacht design, with double-story ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows, portholes, striped Venetian flooring and Murano chandeliers worthy of the Titanic? Glamorous. The pink-as-pink Bellinis, invented in 1948 at the Cipriani family’s Harry’s Bar in Venice, an establishment that’s been lauded by literary giants and declared a National Landmark? G-L-A-M-O-R-O-U-S. The clientele, coiffed to perfection and primped by designer names from head to 6-inch heels? Glam, glam, glam.

My one point of contention amid all the grandeur is that you may feel cramped by the round, white linen-draped cocktail tables and white captain’s chairs (interspersed with blue love seats), less sturdy and set at a lower height than average, that cradle the derrieres of patrons in the front room. Perhaps architect and designer Michele Bonan, from Florence, is petite herself. Whatever the reason, they’re fine for those of us who usually feel dwarfed by larger furniture (not to mention the yawning windows and ceilings), but I did watch a number of customers maneuver their bodies in some very interesting ways in order to fit themselves, almost upending furniture in the process.

Still, the end result of the decor and bar scene at Cipriani is that you feel not so much at dinner as at a very prestigious cocktail party. This is an impression that the waiters, who ask if you will have a Bellini or a glass of Champagne to start (as if there are no other options), take pains to uphold. Note that I said waiters. The sum of my visits has produced one female server, who ferried us a plate of something, once. Managed by two generations of the Cipriani family, subsequent to founder Guiseppe Cipriani, the staff here, in their tidy white jackets, is seriously proficient and dedicatedly old-school.

As is the fare. While it’s currently in the running for most expensive restaurant in the city, Cipriani’s Miami version is not the place to indulge in luxe comestibles. The closest the standard menu gets to caviar is capers. The Miami menu is more geared towards the basics: carpaccio, eggplant alla Parmagiana and spaghetti with clams. Beginning a meal here with the familiar yet perfectly golden brown fritto misto, a pile of crisply battered miniature squid sprinkled with whole, salty sardines, is not only accepted but expected. Don’t turn your nose up at the sardines, smaller than the joint of your pinky finger—head, tail and all—they’re an excellent cicheti, or appetizer, and ideal with a glass of Prosecco.

There are, however, a couple of seafood dishes that are opulent by both nature and price tag. They include both the Maine lobster and king crab cold appetizers, served shelled and dressed simply with a squeeze of sprightly lemon and a spritz of olive oil. Of the main courses, items like the langoustines scampi—a half-dozen simply grilled crustaceans split open and laid out on the plate like thick chain necklaces—are the most lavish on the palate, given to a rich sweetness that is similar to both lobster and prawns. But they’re also on the light side, served with simply a side of frilled baby lettuce tossed with just the merest modicum of lemon and olive oil.

The menu has changed a bit since the May opening, but renowned specialty dishes have remained more or less constant. To wit: the baked green tagliolini, interspersed with minced Italian ham. The unifying pungency of salt-cured ham and creamy cheese are compelling. But big appetites would be better off with the hearty homemade potato gnocchi, as the single layer of chopped tagliolini is rather thin.

Regardless, every presentation, small or not, is that word again: glamorous. For the most satisfying plates, try any of the numerous veal dishes, which include veal tonnato (cold and sliced in tuna sauce), veal Milanese (pounded and fried), a veal chop and even calves’ liver. Veal meatballs, called bisko, comprise young beef that’s minced so finely that the texture is spongy, almost compressed. This results in a great amount of flavor getting trapped in the morsels, which are the size of pingpong balls and resting in a tangy, long-cooked marinara sauce that is a dish unto itself. A similar but slightly looser filling is sealed into a dozen or so ravioli, which can be overcooked on occasion, and lanced with a sauce that tastes like a demi-glace.

Portions are small enough that even if you enjoy several courses, dessert is a must. You can always go with the creamy vanilla ice cream that the waiters assure you is made on the premises, which is large enough to share and completely addictive. Or address the white cake with poufs of lightly browned meringue, another touted Cipriani signature. You may want to ask if the cake is fresh before you order. I’ve had it stale on occasion. But does it really matter? While it’s all decidedly delicious, you’re not here, entirely, for the food. Besides, complaining is hardly—what’s that word again?—glamorous.

The Kids Are Alright
For all its elegance, Cipriani Downtown Miami is rather children-friendly. Plenty of families sit around the dinner table here. But take a page from the Beckham family’s playbook, and dress up the tots.

Say Yes to the Press
While all Cipriani locations are centered around their bar scenes, in Miami the bar actually collides with the foyer and the host station. It all becomes a little crowded at times... yet rather fun.

Reservations? A Must!
You simply can’t get a Louboutin in the door here without a reservation. And don’t try it. Even Mondays and Tuesdays are packed, and the restaurant usually picks up between 9 and 10pm.

Asian Flair
Dishes that could be termed crudo are reinvented here as “new sashimi,” although even that designation is not quite correct for something like the seared beef with yuzu-ponzu sauce.

Cipriani Downtown Miami
465 Brickell Ave., Miami, 786.329.4090, cipriani.com

Lunch and dinner daily, 11am-midnight

Appetizers and salads, $11-$27; cold and hot Asian plates, $21-$38; pastas,  soups and risottos, $14-$27; main courses, $26-$79; desserts, $14-$22