Restaurant Reviews

SoBe Up North

True or false? You know you've arrived at an Ocean Drive dining destination if: (1) a leggy hostess with a mocha tan and sunglasses on her head greets you on the sidewalk, (2) even though you thought you were going for a quiet dinner, you hear techno music thumping behind the bar, and (3) the menu has a disclaimer stating that a 15 percent gratuity will automatically be added to your bill. The answer is "false" to all three, though it seems Spiaggia, the Elbo Room's new neighbor on Fort Lauderdale Beach, suffers from a severe case of South Beach displacement.

The Italian word spiaggia means "beach," though just which beach this nearly 2-month-old restaurant should call home is in question.

The owner, Leone Padula, seemed eager to denounce the SoBe dining scene as a "has been" when I visited recently, yet he has successfully replicated the feel of an Ocean Drive bar-cum-restaurant in this spot. Spiaggia looks oddly like a joint one would find on the Star Trek Voyager. Solid concrete covers the floor and rises to form a bar in the back. White padded seats add to the chic feel, and the exposed ventilation system, in chilling silver, seems monochromatically appropriate. Even the bathrooms are cold and concrete with silver doors. Seemingly the only warmth comes from a wall of mood lights that go from a muted blue in the daytime to a more jovial rainbow-like show as the sun sets.

But the icy, vacant feel inside may appeal to the clientele Padula is itching to welcome. He expects patrons who would most likely frequent Nikki Beach and sip caprihinas while chatting about Prada's latest line, rather than those pesky locals who drag up to the Elbo Room to suck on rumrunners in their ripped jean shorts. He says he hopes Spiaggia's guest list will consist of arrivals from the new W Hotel, Trump International Beach Club, and St. Regis. And with nine South Florida restaurants -- including the nearby Café del Mar on Fort Lauderdale Beach -- already under his undoubtedly Armani leather belt, who knows? Maybe Padula will be the dining messiah who turns the tattoo-and-pierced-nipple strip toward a new future, replete with gentrified Gen Xers in convertible Volvos.

The bar will likely be successful, as it is the most upscale offering in the area. In an effort to appeal to certain locals, especially those in the service industry, Spiaggia offers nightly two-for-one specials starting at 4 p.m. and a discount of 50 percent off bottles of wine Monday and Tuesday nights. Plus, frozen drinks are served in glasses the size of small beach balls ($11.95), so no one should leave thirsty. Those anticipating a late-nighter should partake of the specialty drink of the house -- an espresso martini -- as it may leave you feeling as buzzed as a 1980s raver.

To differentiate Spiaggia even more from its competitors, the restaurant offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner from 7:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. seven days a week. The single-page breakfast menu offers the expected omelets, pancakes, French toast, and the like but also has a selection of frittatas with salsa fresca ($8.95 to $9.95) and various egg specialties. The most interesting offering was the Eggs Spiaggia -- which is made with oysters and artichoke bottoms ($9.95). (Note: One would wonder who has the stomach for oysters shortly after sunrise.)

Similar to the dinner menu but smaller in range, the lunch offerings include panini served on either focaccia or ciabatta. The most inspired creation appears to be the polpette, which is stuffed with brick-oven-roasted meatballs, pecorino Romano, and handmade mozzarella cheeses with a touch of sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes ($8.95). I opted for the macadamia-dusted goat cheese and baby spinach salad with Granny Smith apples ($8.95) and regretted it upon its belated arrival. The spinach leaves, which were coated in a raspberry vinaigrette dressing that looked like yogurt and tasted like Bonnie Bell lip gloss, were so big that I had to chop like a Benihana chef to spear a reasonable bite. As for the goat cheese... well, let's just say my dining guest said it tasted "gamey." Watching him masticate the sticky, macadamia-crusted spongy disk was like watching a dog deal with a dollop of peanut butter.

Fortunately, pizza is Spiaggia's staple, and bargoers will probably be amused watching Italian chefs prepare the pies from a brick-fired oven. Crispy, thin-crust selections include a variety of vegetarian, classic, and inspired creations, like the pizzaiola with Italian sausage, sweet onions, and grilled peppers ($9.95 to $12.95). Or, if diners are feeling creative, they can make masterpieces from 30 toppings, including roasted artichokes, baby shrimp, caramelized onions, and wild mushrooms.

My guest and I tried the Napoletana, which is topped with plum tomatoes, mozzarella, oregano, and basil ($9.95). The crust was light, tasty, and draped with just the right amount of chewy cheese, leafy basil, and chunks of tomato. But be warned: Though ordered as an appetizer, the pizza took nearly 45 minutes to arrive. It came just in time to share space on our tiny table with the three other dishes that arrived in unison. We had ordered those about 20 minutes prior. Our waitress was apologetic, and the manager took some money off our bill (though we never complained), so that gained them some Brownie points.

On another visit, shortly after sunset, the food arrived in proper sequence but was still delayed. It was about this time that I noticed an interesting phenomenon similar to the "changing of the guard." It appears that toned and tanned female servers handle the lunch crowd and handsome, heavily Italian-accented male servers do the night shift. Regardless, neither team delivered expedient service on my visits, so one can only hope that watching the pizza-making will serve as ample distraction while patrons patiently wait for their selections.

Chef Michael Smith, formerly of Indigo and the Grill Room at Fort Lauderdale's Riverside Hotel, aimed to create a menu that combined tastes from each of Italy's 22 regions, including Calabria, a beach resort on the southwest tip and the owner's homeland. Padula claims that this influence from various regions and the unique décor set Spiaggia apart. "We are not the typical Italian restaurant," he said. "There are no pictures of the Vatican on the walls, no white and red tablecloths. We are the younger generation in décor and cuisine."

For dinner, my guest and I bypassed the pizzas (which, in retrospect, was probably a mistake) and instead shared an Assagini appetizer sampler ($10.95 per person) consisting of crispy calamari offering just the right crunch and a hearty breading, a shrimp scampi on bruschetta, and a few oysters Spiaggia, which were topped in spinach, shrimp, and Hollandaise. We were tempted to try the seafood pesto minestrone with mussels, shrimp, and "fish" ($5.95), but we simply didn't have the room.

The tagliatelle mare e monti (noodles with seafood) was a beautiful sight to behold, and it seemed reasonably priced at $18.95. But it tragically turned out to be an oversalted and oily pasta dish with various bivalve mollusks (clams and mussels) and shrimp drowning in a pool of pinot Grigio, porcini, and tomato sauce.

A fish sampler consisting of shrimp, salmon, and sea bass was the other special du jour. Set atop risotto and decorated with large asparagus and a sprig of dill, the seafood was mediocre at best. This is true especially regarding the sea bass, which was not the sweet, flaky fish I expected. Unfortunately, the seafood offerings tested on a second visit fared poorly as well. The pan-roasted little-neck clam appetizer ($8.95) left behind a watery legacy and was so laden with garlic that I burped my way out the door.

The same held true for the zuppa di mussels ($7.95), the selection chosen by my guest. He theorized that perhaps the little guys were previously frozen, and for the record, we both questioned the use of croutons in the clam and mussel dishes. Aren't those carbohydrate demons reserved for caesar salads?

Spiaggia's saving graces, until it gets its kitchen, raw bar, and décor up to par, will probably be the pizzas, appetizers, drinks, and desserts. Various granitas and sorbets ($5.95 and $6.95) provide refreshment from the warm ocean breezes, and standards like key lime pie ($6.95) and warm molten chocolate truffle cake ($6.95) will not disappoint. If you are more daring, try "The Abiss" -- a lacy almond cup oozing with Grand Marnier-touched zabaglione and fresh seasonal berries ($6.95).

But be advised: Overeating is not recommended if you plan to party it up afterward in South Beach style. The owner plans to shutter the sidewalk eating area nightly to seclude the barflies from the "outside elements" (one wonders if he is referring to tourists, blue collar locals, or rainshowers). Hmm, just when you thought the VIP scene was limited to nightclubs, it seems the trend has begun to make its way to your local restaurants. Perhaps that pretty hostess is a bouncer in disguise.

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Riki Altman