This Big Fish seems to have more lives than a cat. The original, a quirky Spanish restaurant marked by a red stiletto shoe sculpture a story high, opened nearly two decades ago on the Miami River. In 1999, a Milano restaurateur transformed it into an impossibly popular Italian restaurant-club that closed in 2010, only to pop up on the Little River just off Biscayne Boulevard a couple of months ago.
In this new, smaller spot (formerly a Greek tavern and an Indian buffet), nothing remains of the original pesce-centric eatery except the name, but new owners are trying to bring this fabled fish back to life.
Renovations included a much-needed cleanup of the interior and an expansion of the riverside terrace. Twinkling white lights, flowing drapes and tablecloths lend a romantic air, though the blood-red interior walls, fake flower centerpieces and clubby soundtrack are a bit tacky.
The straightforward menu of Italian seafood could use more fresh and local fish. The salmon, branzino, grouper and tuna on offer are common from Miami to Milwaukee.
Still, vibrant, lemony tuna tartare with a creamy smattering of avocado makes a satisfying starter to share. Thinly sliced octopus carpaccio is as large as my hand and a bit unwieldy, but nicely plated beneath a shower of infant arugula and sweet, grape tomato halves.
Pastas, too, are well handled, though some of the sauces are as salty as seawater. A luscious paccheri, wide, grooved tubes cooked al dente and sauced with a smooth cream dotted with ham and portobello mushrooms, is worth returning for. Competent linguine alla vongole sported teeny, tender eraser-sized clams as perky as high-school cheerleaders.
Salads, including a standard Caesar, are dressed appropriately for the subtropical climate.
The fish we sampled was inconsistent. A sliver of branzino was cooked perfectly al cartoccio (in paper packet) with briny black olives, earthy capers and juicy tomatoes. However, on another visit, the grouper was dry and thin, its buckling breadcrumb coating thicker than the fish itself.
A tagliata di manzo, rib-eye, was evenly marbled and tender enough, but had an odd grayish color. However, the accompanying patate al forno, perfectly puffed cubes of roasted potato, were transporting.
A pair of pretty crab cakes had the texture and taste of mashed potatoes. Bracelet-sized rings of calamari were thin and golden but cold and chewy as rubber bands. Not even the tangy marinara sauce could help. The mussels, clams and shrimp in the seafood risotto lacked freshness and flavor.
Chef Andrea Chiriatti shows skill, but this kitchen is not stocked with the kind of 24-karat ingredients he enjoyed during a brief stint at the now-shuttered Gold & Pepper on South Beach.
Front-of-the-house staff are welcoming, but disappear for long stretches. Servers were quick to remove dishes we hadn’t finished and slow to refill water and wine glasses.
Speaking of wine, the list is limited, several labels we asked for were not available, and the Montepulciano was served warm as bath water.
Desserts were a nice surprise. A supple pannacota paired with a sweet-tart berry compote nearly had us scraping the plate. An airy chocolate mousse is as fun as Christmas, and the indulgent tiramisu has loads of cocoa and a potent dose of espresso.
There are happy elements to this fish tale, including a magical outdoor setting and a few nice plates, if you choose well.
Miami Herald reviewers dine anonymously at the newspaper's expense.