Thea Goldman, no stranger to culinary pioneering, has put down roots in a neighborhood on the edge of Overtown dubbed the Health District thanks to an ambitious building project around the University of Miami’s Life Science & Technology Park.
Thea’s Pizzeria and Café is modeled on Joey’s Café, the business she and now ex-husband Joey Goldman opened in Wynwood in 2008. Their bold move spurred a cascade of interest and investment in an area that five years later is a hipster haven.
Here, the willowy, British-accented dynamo has taken a similar approach to an area with few eating options. That is part of the plan, says Goldman who opened in the fall for breakfast and lunch and is testing the dinner waters with Friday night openings.
Though only 15 minutes from South Beach, this tiny and stunning eatery, situated almost under I-95, is worlds away. It’s surrounded by office buildings, warehouses, car repair shops, a technical school and, most importantly, plans for a large hotel and retail space.
Dressed causally in black jeans and T-shirts and hailing from as far away as Naples, Italy, and as close as the surrounding Allapattah neighborhood, wait staff takes its cue from the upbeat boss with sunny smiles and quick service.
A dramatic, 30-foot-wide mural of peonies, roses, daffodils and daisies shimmers with 210,000 pieces of Italian glass pieced together by designer Carlo dal Bianco of Bisazza Mosaico. It’s set against a black backdrop with simple wooden tables set with vases of white hydrangea. Buffed, eggshell-colored concrete floors and soaring ceilings lend an industrial edge, while golden globes of light cast an elegant sheen.
The food is equal parts rustic and refined. Simple starters include pristine salads of baby arugula, mint, escarole and nicely roasted beets and a tiny greenhouse arrangement, all farmed locally.
A nice array of pizzas is cooked in a gas-fueled stone oven. The crust could be a bit saltier and chewier, but it makes a fine vehicle for generous and deftly handle toppings such as sausage-ricotta and anchovy-caper. My favorite is artichoke hearts with arugula, or maybe Gorgonzola with toasty walnuts and truffle oil.
A slightly stiff and too-thin focaccia loaded with shredded pecorino cheese and black pepper could use more loft.
Daily fish specials such as a silken cod fillet over mashed potatoes and a puree of briny black olives are always a good bet, as is the perfectly grilled salmon with lemony caper sauce over white bean and red onion salad. Chicken paillard, pounded thin and served with roasted potatoes and green beans, is simple and satisfying.
Like the menu, the wine list is modest but well done. Most of the two dozen or so labels are available by the glass, including a robust sangiovese from Emiglia Romana coincidentally named Thea.
With the exception of imported ravioli, pastas are of the boxed variety but well handled. We sampled the indulgent rigatoni with nicely browned coins of sausage and Italian ricotta.
Desserts are as simple and elegant as the place itself. Icy frozen espresso, granita topped with whipped cream and salted caramel ice cream are fine choices, as is a light but deeply flavored chocolate cake with a simple dusting of powdered sugar and a handful of plump raspberries.
Thea’s is a bustling hive of activity at breakfast and lunch, and dinner is growing more popular. Like a bright patch in a weed-strewn lot, this burgeoning eatery is full of promise.