A narrow, unmarked alley off Commodore Plaza leads to Strada, the sexy new Italian in the Grove. The wall is lined with hanging pots filled with basil, thyme, tarragon, rosemary and tiny tomatoes.
“It is my little passion,” says owner Maurizio Farinelli, the Torino native who once owned South Miami’s popular Trattoria Sole and Blu. He is back in business, this time in the barren culinary landscape of Coconut Grove, where he has planted more than just aromatic herbs.
Farinelli is quickly growing a following of Italian food lovers who have found their way to this intimate, casual hole-in-the-wall for exquisite cuisine that is at once homey and elegant.
Though tables are tight and demand high, the charming, Como-born maitre’d, Renato Brivio, welcomes all comers with a hug and two kisses as if they were all regulars.
The slender space, straight out of Manhattan’s West Village, is understated with a gray-on-gray color scheme, big barrel lighting and cozy, candle-topped marble tables.
An antipasti board loaded with gorgeous skeins of just-carved meats and cheeses makes an easy start. Chicken liver pate made with lots of long-cooked onions and piped onto garlic- and herb-infused toast (from bread shipped in from Italy) is the closest I have had to the crostini I ate as a student in Florence years ago.
Not to be missed, too, are meaty green olives stuffed with a pungent Gorgonzola and gently fried with the lightest dusting of breadcrumbs.
Seafood also blossoms here with octopus done three ways (all fantastic) and an array of black mussel preparations. Our favorite is the simple white wine and lemon version with lots of parsley and black pepper.
Zuppa di pesce is loaded with mussels, clams, thumb-size bits of tender white fish and shrimp in a tomatoey garlic broth so aromatic and alluring you can almost see the cartoon steam finger beckoning as it wafts toward the table.
The vitello tonatto, a northern Italian classic of cold braised veal sliced thinly and smothered in a rich, creamy, emulsified tuna sauce, is so tender it can be cut with a fork.
The only downright disappointment was a quintet of dense, dry, walnut-sized meatballs.
Pastas are stellar, from a simple spaghetti with garlic, oil and anchovies to hand-rolled agnolottti with pumpkin and brown butter sage sauce.
I’m a sucker for linguine alla vongole, but am often disappointed. Here it is perfection from the aggressively al dente noodles to the tiny, tender, clean and briny clams in a broth so good you must soak up every drop with a slice of warm bread.
Rigatoni all’Amatriciana with a sauce of long-simmered pancetta, onions, rosemary, red wine and tomatoes is a rich and complex indulgence.
We would have liked grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on top, but the server who carried the coveted white ceramic bowl whizzed by so many times without stopping that my husband nearly had to trip him to get his attention.
The long and varied menu is well-organized, except that the side dishes seem to have dropped off the latest iteration. Our distracted waiter seemed annoyed when I asked about them and rolled his eyes when queried about a typo. Like the menu, the restaurant is evolving, with staffers who are generally well-intentioned but under-trained.
The excellent and affordable wine list could use some description or at least a staffer with the knowledge and time to discuss it.
Desserts are as seductively simple as the restaurant itself. A smooth and creamy panna cotta is elevated by a luscious wild blueberry reduction, and wedge of lemon cheesecake is easy to love, though the citrus flavor was nearly indetectable.
Hopefully, the crowding will subside with the opening of the pergola-covered patio and the front of the house will run more smoothly with practice. But for now, the food and scene on this little strada are delightful.
Contact Victoria Pesce Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.