If you think farm-to-table restaurant cooking is a relatively new concept, think again. Michael Schwartz, who helped bring to Miami an emphasis on seasonal local ingredients 10 years ago with the opening of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, knows this from his days as a young cook watching the nonnas make pasta and other traditional Italian fare at his first outpost in Philadelphia.
You don’t have to be a fan of “Tuscan Kitchen” to know that Italian fare is by its very nature farm-to-table, and that synchronicity is on display at Fi’lia, the newest gem in Schwartz’s jewel box. The handsome space in the tutti-frutti confection that is Brickell’s new SLS Hotel is a showcase for Schwartz’s original passion, simple Italian cooking. It’s a place for palates both adventurous and risk-averse: You can build a meal of Caesar salad, margarita pizza and chicken Parmesan, or opt for lobster and corn agnolotti, fish paired with charred-bread salsa verde or olive oil cake. Both styles bear the quality you expect from Schwartz, from spaghetti cooked just right to perfect meatballs to gorgeous olive oil.
The concept was so intriguing that Schwartz has been asked to open a second Fi’lia location in Los Angeles at The James West Hollywood hotel, on Sunset, in early May.
That oil is your first taste at Fi’lia. Ciabatta is brought to the table with sprigs of fresh oregano and a can of imported oil. Munch on the herb-infused treat as you sort through the broad menu, arranged as is typical for Schwartz into snacks, small plates, pizzas, pastas, large plates and really large plates.
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Snacks not to miss include charred eggplant spread with shallots, garlic, lemon, basil and bottarga, Italian cured fish roe. Treated properly, eggplant has as rich and deep a flavor as any vegetable, and this is an absolute hit, shimmering with a perimeter of olive oil, the bottarga faint and savory in the background. The Mediterranean medley continues with chickpea fritters, which look and eat just like falafel except the seasonings are fennel seed and basil, and the sauce is a tomato aioli.
For his Caesar salad, Schwartz set out to “elevate it without tricking it out.” Done. But what they did trick out is a pair of tableside carts, which are wheeled around the restaurant so friendly fellows can put on a tightly choreographed show of making your salad to order. The custom-made carts are equipped with griddles on which they toast garlic croutons, and that aroma is one of Fi’lia’s defining sensations. The salad is fresh and classic, with Romaine, garlic, anchovy, salt, pepper, Dijon, egg yolk, olive oil, lemon and Parmesan, with a bit of radicchio just for color.
No Italian experience is complete without meatballs. Fi’lia’s use the classic mix of beef, veal and pork, rolled with cubed bread soaked in milk for moisture, lightly fried then simmered in a basic marinara and dolloped with ricotta. Three fat ones to an order, they’d be enough for a small meat entree, and they’re outstanding, with sturdy texture and deep flavor.
Pizzas use the same dough made at Schwartz’s Harry’s Pizzeria parlors but with different toppings. The wood oven at the restaurant’s center spit out a crackling-crisp crust for our puttanesca pizza, coated with a rich, briny sauce bearing concentrated flavors of garlic, anchovy and capers, bits of pork sausage, stracciatella and fresh oregano.
On another visit, the wild mushroom pizza with pureed mushroom, onion and leek, sliced porcinis and mozzarella had plenty of flavor but came out underdone, the crust soggy. We sent it back for another trip to the oven, and all was well. Arugula scattered on top adds color and contrast against the intense essence of mushroom.
Two excellent pasta dishes underline the dueling approaches here. Basic spaghetti caccio e pepe couldn’t be more traditional, with al dente pasta, butter, Pecorino, lots of pepper and a bit of pasta water as the sauce. But corn agnolotti with lobster is a majestic creation, creamed corn inside the agnolotti in a concentrated lobster reduction with cognac, white wine, tomato and lobster meat.
That wood oven produces plenty of meat entrees. Our wood-grilled leg of lamb was the lone serious misstep on all our visits. Marinated in salsa verde, the lamb was gristly and underdone, ruining the flavor and diverting attention away from an excellent puree of sunchoke and the tart salad of sunchoke, apple, lemon, olive oil, hazelnuts and salsa verde.
Wood-grilled cobia was significantly better, the sturdy fish succulent and sweet, served with a salsa verde studded with pieces of burnt ciabbata for texture. The fish rested on a base of blanched and braised broccoli rabe and cipollini onions with chili flake, garlic, olive oil and lemon.
A side dish of grilled zucchini was over the top. Fat slabs of sweet zucchini, juicy and textured just right, got a savory hint from anchovy butter with garlic and parsley. Our serving was enough for four.
Sauteed Swiss chard gets an interesting treatment with pine nuts and plump rosemary-olive oil-simmered raisins, but ours had too much salt.
To finish, our server recommended a chocolate Budino, a rich cross between pudding and cake. Rich and velvety, it had deep chocolate flavor and a welcome touch of salt, with brandied cherry cookies adding contrast. The pine nut and honey tart is rich and dense, with a flaky crust and ample pine nuts. Classic Italian indeed.
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If you go
Address: 1300 S. Miami Ave., in the SLS Hotel.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2 (excellent)
Contact: 305-912-1729; sbe.com
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, till midnight Friday-Saturday
Prices: Breakfast items $9-$17; lunch $8-$35; dinner $12-$129; desserts $5-$13
FYI: Happy hour with food and drink specials 4-7 p.m. daily. Reservations strongly suggested. Full bar and strong wine list. Corkage fee $35. Street and valet parking ($12).
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)