Every year for Lent my husband gives up beets. Not much of a sacrifice since he, like an inexplicable number of other people I know, can’t stand them. I’m not sure what it is about the harmless root vegetable that turns off so many people. Maybe the neon-red jarred Borscht inflected on them as children? I feel lucky. My mom roasted them and served them sliced into happy smiles with red onion and olive oil, making them one of my all-time favorites.
Since I rarely make them at home, I always order them out. One of the best beet dishes I have had in years is at Cara Mia, the tiny neighborhood trattoria that is a dear addition to its South Beach neighborhood next to Whole Foods.
It resembles any of the gazillion trattorias that seem to exist on every corner in New York but are in short supply in our own touristy backyard.
That’s the idea, says owner Enrico Malta, a Sicily native who, with his brother, opened 40-something restaurants in New York over the past three decades and now tries his hand in the tropics.
His philosophy is simple: Spende poco e mangia bene. Or, spend little and eat well.
It’s nothing fancy, mind you. Menus are slipped into thick vinyl books like you would see in a Greek diner. Plates and glasses are the commercial-grade kind you could drop without a chip.
Still, the low lighting and handsome décor might even approach romantic. Rustic terracotta floors and cozy brown wicker chairs pulled up to wooden tables make it as welcoming as a piazza in spring. The long gray marble bar is studded with willowy white, leather barstools facing a screen that plays old Fellini films. Dramatically oversized lightboxes of Italian film stars complete the quirky, modern décor. Another draw are perpetually smiling, handsome Italian waiters who are as quick with a wine suggestion as they are with a joke.
Speaking of wine, the well-chosen, affordable Italian varietals are served by the bottle, quartino and glass. Why not ask for a taste? The waiter won’t bat an eyelash whether you order a humble Chianti or a noble Tuscan.
Getting back to those beets. Yellow and crimson beauties are lightly roasted and then shaved into see-through rounds fanned out onto the plate and topped with teeny, tender leaves of arugula and crumbled gorgonzola with crunchy bits of pancetta and a subtle sheen of dressing.
Veteran Italian chef Alessandro DiMaggio has a way with a mandolin, also making a fantastic carpaccio of octopus and beef.
A similarly restrained lemony Caesar is topped with crunchy housemade croutons and paper-thin sheets of crystally Parmigiano-Reggiano while a delicately robed strawberry and goat cheese dressing pops with fresh colors and flavor.
A lovely starter — and another of my favorites— is the classic mellanzane alla parmigiana, discs of light and lustrous eggplant lightly dusted with flour and ever-so-gently fried, then layered with a restrained hand of cheeses and touched with a thin but zesty tomato sauce.
A hunk of bread is necessary to sop up any extra sauce. Unfortunately, one night ours was irresistibly crusty and dense while the next it seemed half cooked and pasty.
Every pasta we tried, however, was cooked beautifully al dente and sauced gently. My favorite is the decadent spaghetti alla carbonara with hunks of chewy, salty pancetta and a rich, eggy sauce. The linguine saporite with snappy pinky-sized shrimp, strips of smoky roasted peppers and kalamata olives is another winner.
A luscious, bitey mushroom risotto is loaded with tender cubes of perfectly spongy Portobellos and just a hint of garlic. The only problem is servings are too big to leave room for a main course.
Still, we managed to persevere. The daily fish special is always properly grilled and served with a nice array of vegetables including maybe broccoli, carrots and potatoes.
Desserts, too, are no-frills. A simple bowl of tiramisu served in an au gratin dish is freshly made, subtly flavored and showered with shavings of cocoa and quality dark chocolate.
After two visits, I already feel like a regular. I plan to be back soon to try what I am told is a luscious cheesecake and a fantastic brunch.