First it was a bacon-themed gastro-pub, then a fusion sushi den. After that came a Catalan-focused tapas bar. And now, Italian?
Those Pubbelly boys are at it again. Macchialina, the latest addition to their multinational South Beach empire, is a hub of exquisite flavors in a cacophony of cool.
The name? A mash-up of macchia (mark or spot) and maialina (piglet).
The space? Sylvano’s (happily relocated to Liberty Avenue) has been transformed with brick walls, over-sized chalkboards and red vinyl chairs that are tucked beneath glossy pine tables arranged tightly to fit in the clamoring crowds.
The sliver of a bar is perpetually crowded, and with good reason. The bartender puts out lovely drinks—inventive ones, too, since he is working with a beer and wine license. Consider a zingy capri classic made with cocchi Americano and muddled cucumber with mint. The wine selection is as thoughtfully curated as the rest of the experience here.
The tattooed, long-haired waiters are somehow clean-cut at the same time. And, charming, of course. As is the food. Michael Pirolo, former chef de cuisine at Scarpetta, performs as well with traditional fare as he does with riffs on it.
Meals start with bright flavors and build. You might get a little bowl of green olives in a zesty tomato sauce flecked with red pepper flakes, and may want to order a plate of fantastic grilled sourdough, from local bakers Le Parisienne.
Salads can be light as a breeze, such as the escarole and pistachio, or heartier, like the late-summer number with delectable rabbit meat.
Add either of those to the richest polenta I have tasted and you have a meal. That tiny ramekin of polenta is said to cook for three hours, and I believe it. Gooey Parmigiano-Reggiano and house-made pork sausage with fennel, cinnamon, nutmeg and peperoncino coupled with sweet baby cipollini onions all meld into a few spoonfuls of decadence.
I am a bit of a purist when it comes to broccoli di rabe, and here, the bitter greens are treated like a king — or emperor, actually, as in Caesar. The warm stalks bend beneath tiny crumbles of hard-boiled egg and a garlicky, Parmigiano dressing that clings like a second skin. Petite portions leave you begging for more.
An interesting but not yet excellent eggplant “tortino” is a golf-ball-sized packet of buffalo mozzarella, smoked mozzarella and fresh ricotta wrapped in parchment-like sheets of eggplant and sprinkled with crunchy dehydrated cheese. About the same size but much more successful are the polpettine, mini meatballs made with rich veal cheek and pork in a pale but powerful tomato sauce that had me licking my plate.
House-made pastas are reason enough to make a trip here. The taglioni with abalone mushroom slices shines as bright as a winter sunrise with the lightest whisper of a sauce. Also good are the spaghetti alla vongole with peppery arugula and a divine cavatelli with baby meatballs, porchetta and plenty of zippy pecorino.
Pizza, too, is transporting. Real Italian-style rounds of dough are miraculously crackling in the center and puffy along the edges with blackened whacks of soot from the deck oven. We tried the rustic Lombarda with slivers of pancetta, daubs of Gorgonzola and a fried egg winking in center.
With so many good small options, main plates are nearly beside the point. Still, we sampled the branzino, a lovely rendition with tiny bits of rock shrimp as well as baby mussels. Mussels star in a bowl of white wine and cherry tomatoes, their black shells revealing tender meat the size of a pencil eraser.
For dessert, tiramisu in a mason jar gets a whimsical topping of hair-on-your-chest granita, while a tart consists of nothing more than buttery crust and sour cherry filling.
My only complaint is the deafening din on busy nights. Sit outside to cure that problem. But do it soon while you still can get a seat.