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The scene at the restaurant’s bar

Game On!

by Jen Karetnick | Photography by Michael Pisarri | Miami magazine | April 3, 2014

It’s 1981, and Bertucci’s opens in Davis Square in Somerville, Mass. That’s right outside Boston, near Harvard, Tufts and other Ivy League universities. Students flock to munch on the first brick oven-baked pizza in the area, but don’t do much more than gawk at the bocce court in the basement. No one knows how to play. It’s an old man’s game from the Old Country. To attempt it would be social suicide.

Flash-forward to 2014, and bocce is Brooklyn hipster, with courts all over the borough. Playing it, Campari and soda in hand, allows participants to pretend to a romanticism and sophistication they don’t themselves own. And you can’t get any trendier than indulging your make-believe inner Italian, can you?

Miamians who haven’t yet gotten the memo about bocce’s reinvention as a cool pastime can catch up at Bocce Bar, which Samba Brands Management (also responsible for SushiSamba and Sugarcane) opened late last year in Midtown. The 3,200-square-foot restaurant features a warm interior with a floor mosaic created with antique, salvaged tiles; exposed wooden ceiling beams from which hang rustic metal light fixtures; and a conglomeration of reclaimed wooden tables, chairs, benches and counters. Outside, an expansive Mediterranean-style cafe, partially hidden from the street by cypress trees, features Miami’s first official bocce court, available for anyone who wants to get close as possible to il pallino.

If you don’t know what that means, no worries: The drinks menu has an easy-to-follow set of rules, along with some very interesting cocktails. The beverage program, run by Richard Woods, head of SBM’s spirit and cocktail development department, includes aperitivos such as an Aged Negroni and the signature Bocce Ball (amaretto, mandarin vodka, almond syrup, orange juice, club soda and lemon juice). That said, the risk-taking is not always successful. Sorry, but I draw the line at the butternut squash and clementine bellini. Even if you don’t like it, however, you can count on it being expertly mixed at the bar. From authentic Italian accents to experienced hands on the martini shaker, these guys know what they’re doing.

The only thing patrons can’t do at Bocce, a la Bertucci’s and Brooklyn? Eat pizza. It’s not on the menu. But you won’t miss it. Instead, plan on downing some much richer treats. Executive Chef and partner Timon Balloo spent weeks researching native foodstuffs in Italy, and the fairly irresistible menu at Bocce Bar is the result of his culinary explorations.

As you can do at some of the other rustic-luxe Italian restaurants that have been popping up like fungi around town, the idea here is to start with a selection of cheeses and meats. Out of this part of the menu, my personal favorite is perhaps the least Italian: a block of chicken and duck liver pâté so smooth it should ride a Vespa. You can order this from the regular menu but can also find it on the list of bar appetizers during happy hour, which offers a few noteworthy items that aren’t on the more formal sheet. These include fried polenta sticks, served with a finger-licking truffled fontina sauce, and olive ascolane, a recipe stemming from the Ascoli region in the Marches that involves stuffing large green olives with sausage, then breading and deep-frying them.

Bocce follows the same format as Sugarcane, meaning that most of the dishes, with the exception of a few main courses, are tapas-style, meant to be shared. You might have a problem with that if you order the creamy polenta with rapini and a poached egg. The yolk melts into the already rich corn mash, and an optional scraping of black truffles on top can put it over the edge for some. But the rapini’s touch of bitterness saves the dish from being cloying, and we found ourselves fighting for the last bite.

Another dish worth crossing forks over is the lamb meatballs, offset by a backsplash of creamy goat cheese—pungency meeting pungency in the tastiest way imaginable. In fact, there are quite a few items here that tempt me to misbehave. Eggplant-stuffed ravioli are nestled into a luscious burrata creme that is enhanced by basil pesto. Even the carrots are tempting, given that they’re trimmed with mascarpone and pistachio “granola.”

You might have gathered by now that there’s not much for a vegan here, or a fan of the gluten-free anything, or for the lactose intolerant for that matter. In short, Bocce Bar is a place to indulge, not deny. If you do feel so motivated as to watch your weight, you can lighten up, ironically, by ordering a main course. The grilled swordfish or the whole branzino with Calabrese chile pepper-braised fennel and cipollini onions won’t set you up for failure next time you step on the scale. Giving it all a mental shrug for the evening? A veal breast and T-bone, basted with butter, flavored with sage and plated with succulent sweetbreads, is a gift for hearty appetites.

Bocce Bar makes its own amaretto, which will soon also be available for sale. Meanwhile, you can enjoy it in the pistachio polenta cake or as an aperitif. I preferred mine in gelato, as the flavors at Bocce Bar—like the cocktails—are both unique and surprising, and quite unlike my game. I won’t be making the bocce Olympics anytime soon. Of course, practicing at Bocce Bar is hardly a hardship.

Who’s Who
Bocce Bar may seem quiet in comparison to sister Sugarcane, but we’ve seen plenty of well-known chefs and food personalities at the tables every time we’ve been.

Parla Italiano?
We don’t either. But if you do, have at it. Most of the staff here is Italian, and the menu could use some translation.

Stand Up
If you like the idea of quaffing an espresso on the fly as they do in Italy, Bocce Bar features a counter ready and waiting for you.

Get it To-Go!
A market behind the bar currently stocks dry goods, olive oils, salumi and cheese. Coming soon: housemade sauces and liqueurs.

Bocce Bar
Midtown, 3252 NE First Ave., Miami, 786.245.6211

Lunch and dinner: Sun.-Wed., 11:30am-11pm; Thu.-Sat., 11:30am-midnight. Happy Hour: Mon.-Fri., 4-7pm
Cheeses and salumi, $8-$22; antipasti, $8-$14; bar appetizers, $7-$12; pasta, $17-$21; main courses, $16-$48; vegetables, $7-$14