Named after the jet-setty Tuscan beach town on the Tyrrhenian Sea, Forte dei Marmi is an elegant and understated addition to the menagerie of fine dining options south of Fifth.
With a name like the Marble Fort, this Italian newcomer may sound imposing, but the beachy space, some 120 seats divided more or less equally between inside and out, is stunningly inviting. Seamless slabs of travertine and oak floors bleached the color of sand glow beneath the starry lights and glimmers of candles dotting the tables.
Every detail from the namesake marble to the waiter’s crisp khaki uniforms to the cascading bursts of pink bougainvillea at the arched entryway adds to the always-summer allure.
Locals might recognize the space as the former model-magnet Joia and then a series of stuttering, celebrity backfires, including De Vito’s and Cavalli. Then again, after a multimillion-dollar redesign of the 1938 Mediterranean revival home by local architect Chad Oppenheim and Milan-based designer Henry Timi, maybe not.
Owners Riccardo and Tatyana Silva imported the two Michelin-starred chef Antonio Mellino and his son, 27-year-old Raffaele, to create a menu in the style of their family-owned restaurant Quattro Passi in Nerano on the Amalfi Coast.
As you might expect, seafood is what’s highlighted here. Most of it is imported from Portugal, but as Raffaele says, “I am very excited about the fish here, but I want to distinguish this by serving something different than you can get in other Miami restaurants.”
That would include a dramatic carpaccio of red shrimp and an octopus charred with dollops of Sicilian caponata and emerald-green parsley oil.
The linguine alla Nerano is a classic from the Mellinos’ hometown and is done exquisitely. Tiny ribbons of zucchini are tangled like legs in the sheets of tender handmade pasta shimmering in a gloss of Parmesan with a kiss of butter.
A could-not-be-simpler housemade tagliolini is tossed with wild Alaskan crab meat, gorgeous cherry tomatoes from Homestead with a hit of spicy chili oil.
As good as these unfussy pastas are, a faux pasta made from squid is worth a trip here on its own. The calamari is cleaned and partially cooked sous vide then sliced into uniform threads wound into a nest of sublime flavors. The dish is accented with passion fruit puree, miniature leaves of mint, tiny squares of lemon zest gelatin and pops of tiny jet-black Petrossian caviar. “People, especially here in America, think of calamari as fried, but when they see this they are amazed,” the younger Mellino, who will turn 28 in July, said after our visits.
A golden, skin-on branzino filet over a delicate artichoke puree with crispy fried fingerling potatoes is a study in simplicity as is a local red snapper wrapped in squash blossoms and dotted with peas and greens.
The menu and website promise local and organic products, but honestly, the menu when we dined in March and April did not use much from around here.
A “Green Dream” salad, for example, features young arugula, sweet corn, cubes of green apple and shaved, raw artichoke in a gossamer dressing. Tasty and simple as a Tuesday night.
Only as a resort for those who don’t eat seafood, a plump veal chop beneath a shimmery veil of demi-glace or a young chicken in pieces with shiitake mushrooms and creamy mashed potatoes are serviceable.
What did not work as well were the clunky, round buttons of ravioli filled with smoked mozzarella and a remarkably flavorless green risotto that was heavier than the exemplary seafood version we sampled on our first visit.
Desserts also could use a bit more pizzazz. A lackluster tiramisu, with barely a hint of espresso (serves us right for ordering it) had us yawning, but the peanut butter express with dulce de leche and olive oil cake was more grown up. However, we were wowed by an unexpected flavor bomb by way of the pistachio gelato for two. The dramatic (and dramatically priced at $30) swirl of this confection is made to order and astounds with the chewy, nutty, creamy taste of Sicilian pistachio cream in a not-too-sweet base.
Servers are long on looks and charm with evidence of good training if not consistency. Ours were formal but not fussy, friendly but not too cozy, quick with suggestions and equally quick to refill waters and wine from the mostly Italian list that contains a few reasonably priced bottles (and some real trophy finds).
For those who can afford it, there is plenty to recommend this Italian summer fling all year round.
If You Go
Place: Forte Dei Marmi
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ (Very Good)
Address: 150 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach
Hours: 6-11 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 6-11 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 6-10 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday. Sunday brunch runs from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Prices: appetizers and first plates $17-$32; main plates $26-$49; sides $7-$10; dessert $10-$30.
FYI: valet $20 and metered street parking; full bar; Corkage $50 per bottle; $25 kids menu is also available; Sunday brunch is fixed price $55, and includes complimentary mimosa; reservations strongly suggested; AE, DC, MC, VS. Arts club membership and live performances on hold until permits approved.