Miami has its share of black-tie Italian restaurants, and more pizza joints than you can shake a jar of oregano at, but casual, “family-style” Italian-American spots are as rare as a good steak carpaccio.
I’m talking about places that serve up big platters of classics like baked ziti, stuffed mushrooms, chicken scarpariello, Italian wedding soup and lots of dishes smothered in melted mozzarella and Parmigiano.
That — along with some very friendly staffers — is what makes Luca Bella in the old Chef Allen’s space worth a try.
Nostalgia comes in many forms here. You hear it on the soundtrack with Old Blue Eyes and see it on the walls with photos of owner Mickey Maltese’s kids, Marcelo Luca and Isabella, for whom the restaurant is named.
The setting is not dramatically different from the restaurant’s former incarnation. The palette is more muted, with browns and blues offset by white tablecloths, and the open kitchen still looks out over the 200-seat dining room.
The all-male servers in blue button-downs are prompt, polite and generally attentive. (We were briefly forgotten one night when our guy got caught up in the Heat game on one of the flat-screen televisions.)
All tables start with a basket of warm, rustic bread slices that crackle when broken and taste especially good with the soft-as-butter roasted garlic cloves that slip from their skins like a robe without a belt.
An exceptional Caesar salad tossed tableside with crisp, cold romaine, house-made croutons and eggy-garlicky dressing is a light alternative to the meat-filled chopped salad loaded with antipasto favorites like salami, peppers and provolone.
Clams casino like you’d find down on Carmine Street in New York City are delightfully snappy, coated in buttery bread crumbs that are well seasoned with wine and garlic.
Most menu items are available as half orders, but be advised that even half an enormous plate of pasta is enough to feed a small family. Over-order and you’ll join the parade of diners departing with doggie bags like so many shoppers who’ve scored at a Bloomie’s clearance sale.
We sampled the simple spaghetti marinara with a wonderfully thick and zingy sauce as well as an indulgent baked fettuccine alfredo topped with buttery bread crumbs toasted until crunchy.
Also from the baked specialties, eggplant parm made with layers of lightly fried naked slices are done perfectly so long as you don’t mind a heavy hand with the melted mozzarella.
Not all the dishes work, and for the price, you would expect that more do. The popular lobster ravioli is too dense and salty for my taste, and the signature whole Maine lobster in tomato sauce was cooked too long, making the meat chewy and dry. The fist-sized “famous” meatballs lacked the juicy, tender touch you want, and a mammoth platter of calamari was fried until rock-hard.
The wine list is serviceable with lots of affordable bottles and some Italian gems.
Desserts continue the bigger-than-life theme with a sweet and flaky Napoleon that was bigger than a box of Kleenex and even lighter.
Luca Bella manages to bring Italian-American fare to life without slipping into gangster-flick mode, and there are plenty of favorites here that reach far beyond red sauce. Just be sure you bring lots of friends with big appetites to enjoy the big menu of old-fashioned fare.