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Grilled octopus with haricot verts, potatoes, olives, cherry tomatoes and parsley pesto

FEATURES

Return Engagement

By Jen Karetnick

Photography by Michael Pisarri

08.24.17

With its stellar Italian menu and gregarious staff, Zucca makes a strong case for the comeback of the neighborhood restaurant.

Many Miami diners have become one-and-doners. The culinary map has expanded so rapidly here that it seems impossible to hit all the high points, let alone get back to them for a second go-round. So we visit the hottest new restaurant to say we’ve been there, done that, then move on to the next one. We’ve become epicurean tourists in our own town, rarely transforming into regulars anywhere.

Perhaps that’s why I found both the service and clientele at Zucca, the Italian restaurant that recently opened inside Coral Gables’ legendary Hotel St. Michel, so refreshing. Diners are greeted familiarly—some by name, others at least with facial recognition. Solo patrons comfortably twirl forkfuls of linguini with clams in white wine sauce or dig into hefty meatballs topped with a dollop of ricotta. Even newcomers are almost physically embraced. It’s clear that return customers are both the objective and the norm.

The lobby setup of this historic property allows for the informal, cozy intimacy between restaurant staff and clientele. The host stand is accessible in the hallway upon entrance, and visitors are immediately greeted. On one side of the foyer, the long, narrow Zucca Bar offers, in addition to a row of tables, a white marble-topped bar and a magnificent, glass-enclosed wine cellar that contains 1,000 bottles. On the other, a more formal dining room features a chic, romantic interior that contrasts tufted leather seating and rose gold accents with lanterns and hanging green moss.

Chefs Fabrizio Piga, Ilaria Capuano, Simone Mua (head chef) and Antonio Alfano

Wherever diners choose to sit, they have access to both the extensive wine list and the inventive mixology, designed by the Cocktail Cartel (a local beverage management company). And everyone from the general manager to the servers will be happy to tell you a current favorite, whether it’s a glass of Vermentino or a Nonna’s Mule, comprising Gra’it grappa, watermelon, lemon grass, ginger and Q grapefruit soda. If you don’t ask for advice, you’ll be complimented on your choice. A win-win either way.

Of course, cordiality is the literal backbone of the Da Silva Hospitality Group, the multi-generational, Venezuelan company that runs this and more than 30 other restaurant and hotel properties. While Zucca is the Da Silva’s debut U.S. establishment, it’s not the group’s first introduction to Italian cuisine. In fact, the family’s heritage is mainly Sicilian.

The menu can be viewed through the lens of a Latin American’s big love for meat. From the roast beef that’s roasted, then sliced in overlapping layers and topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano, arugula and baby artichokes, to the Fiorentina alla Griglia, a gigantic T-bone for two, the meat is dry-aged for 21 days in-house. A pounded veal chop, breaded with crisp panko and served on the bone with an arugula-and-tomato salad, seems almost more enormous than the T-bone, but it’s a serving for one. Even a portion of beef-stuffed ravioli, which is glazed with a heady combination of beef broth and melted butter, seems outsized but, at the same time, too good not to finish.

For a lighter introduction to such savory largesse, try the house-made, herbed porchetta or duck breast bresaola. Complement these with a charcuterie board of imported salumi such as prosciutto cotto from Emilia-Romagna, speck from Trentino-Alto Adige or soppressata from Calabria as well as a second platter of formaggi. Or try a dish of creamy burrata garnished with cherry tomatoes, black olives and lampascioni (Puglia’s famous wild hyacinth bulbs).

This plethora of animal products doesn’t mean that vegetarian pastas, fresh fish and regional delicacies don’t abound, however. A meal begins with fresh focaccia along with bowls of black olive tapenade and marinated bruschetta tomatoes. Although the ravioli is also available stuffed with pumpkin and in a butter-sage sauce, one of the most irresistible pastas on the menu is homemade tagliatelle sautéed with a blend of organic wild mushrooms. It’s as stunningly earthy and intense as it is simple.

Executive chef Simone Mua from Milan also offers three versions of stuffed zucchini blossoms: with mozzarella; with ricotta and anchovies; and with scamorza and prosciutto. No matter which you pick, you can expect a trio of lightly battered petals, clasped like hands around well-fed bellies.

Follow appetizers with grilled branzino or turbot fillets. While meats are generally accompanied by golden chunks of crunchy, rosemary-flecked roasted potatoes, fish dishes are plated with vegetables—the branzino with an organic sauté, the turbot with Sicilian caponata (diced zucchini and tomato).

It’s apropos to end the meal the way you begin: with a selection of cheeses and a glass of something, maybe limoncello or grappa. Or you can put them together in a dessert such as ricotta cheesecake with a Marsala wine-reduction-and-almond sauce. Other sweets might be equally as tempting, including the classic tiramisu and the warm chocolate cake with mascarpone ice cream. The best part is that you need not over-order. As you’ll instantly realize from watching other guests’ experiences and enjoying your own, this is a place you’re destined to come back to.  

A bartender serves up a Nonna’s Mule, a mix of grappa, watermelon, lemon grass and ginger with a splash of grapefruit soda.

ZUCCA
Hotel St. Michel, 162 Alcazar Ave., Coral Gables, 786.580.3731

Lunch daily: 11am-5pm. Dinner: Tue.-Sat., 5-11pm; Sun.-Mon., 5-10pm. Sunday brunch: 11am-4pm

Salumeria, $9-$30; soups and salads, $9-$14; antipasti, $13-$24; pastas, $19-$22; main courses, $24-$84; sides, $7-$9; desserts, $10-$14; cocktails, $13-$24; wines by the glass, $12-$27; wines by the bottle, $50-$1,000