Based on Antica Mare’s menu proclamations, you’d expect a line of waiting diners stretching from the Shorecrest restaurant’s front door to the 79th Street Causeway.
“Best chicken you could ever eat!” “First authentic Tuscan restaurant in Florida!” “Best octopus in the world!” “Owner’s favorite dish — you’ll eat everything except the bone!”
Instead, the bayfront restaurant open since January on the ground floor of the Shorecrest Club Apartments was alarmingly empty on recent visits, even by Miami slow-season standards.
Perhaps the crowds simply haven’t yet heard about Italian-born owner Marco Betti’s ristorante — or they haven’t found it. If you aren’t looking for Antica Mare, hidden just north of the causeway, you’re not liable to know it’s there.
And while the chicken and octopus and “Nonna’s” custard-cream cake may not be the best in the world — who among us has sampled enough of those dishes to be able to make that sort of declaration? — they are all very good. Antica Mare’s translation of classic Tuscan cooking — fresh pastas, homemade sauces, substantial cuts of meat and fish — is unfailingly satisfying and comforting.
Dinners here start with soft, warm wheat bread, its slightly sweet flavor a pleasant contrast to the peppery olive oil placed on each table. A server may point you toward the higher-priced appetizer specials like seared scallops on mashed chickpeas or slices of raw tuna topped with spoonfuls of canned black truffles.
(A word on these truffles: They show up in several dishes, likely because Betti is also in the truffle-import business. The canned version is neither as funky-fragrant nor as expensive as the fresh kind. But they’re a welcome step up from the noxious and artificial truffle oils that have proliferated in restaurant dishes in recent years.)
Beef carpaccio, an Italian antipasto staple, features razor-thin blankets of cool, blush meat atop a mound of baby arugula. Celery sliced on the bias and wisps of parmesan add a crunchy, salty bite.
Most pastas can be ordered in half- or full-size portions. You’d be a sucker not to take advantage of Antica Mare’s Sunday specials, with main-course pastas priced at just $10. The menu is refreshingly transparent about what’s made in-house (gnocchi, tagliolini, strozzapreti) and what’s not (farfalle, penne, gemelli). Gnocchi with tomato sauce is light and bright on the palate, while gemelli with prosciutto, peas and heavy cream garnished with a limpy sprig of parsley can hit you like a haymaker.
Grilled tuna steak with black truffles and pounded-thin veal with sage and prosciutto come out of the kitchen hot, generously portioned and well-seasoned. Two roasted airline chicken breasts — crispy skin, juicy meat — are sauced with a truffle-flecked jus and served over rosemary-roasted potatoes.
The food here goes well with an Italian-dominant wine list that includes several reasonably priced by-the-glass options. If liquor’s more your speed, the bar whips out icy-cold martinis and has bartenders with the sense to ask whether you prefer gin (yes) or vodka.
Antica Mare is an offshoot of Antica Posta, which Betti opened 17 years ago in the Atlanta suburb of Buckhead; his brother Alessandro serves as executive chef. Restaurants don’t last that long without the right combination of good cooking and warm hospitality. Antica Mare has both. And while the food may not be the world’s best, as the menu descriptions would have you believe, it’s certainly worth diverting your car from the causeway to see for yourself.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
If You Go
Place: Antica Mare
Address: 7999 NE Bayshore Ct., Miami
Rating: 2.5 stars (Good)
Hours: 5-11 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Prices: Antipasti $8-$16, pastas $10-$24, entrees $19-$42, sides $6-7, desserts $6-$8
FYI: Valet parking ($5); full bar; noise level low; waterfront outdoor seating available; all major credit cards.