Melt-in-your-mouth fresh wisps of octopus carpaccio with a hint of lemon and shallots suggest Miami’s fine dining side. Yet here you are, in a strip mall with a check cashing store and a florist promoting funeral flowers.
Red Carpet is an Italian restaurant run by two Venezuelan brothers in the heart of Little Havana. It sounds like the beginning of a Miami joke, but nobody here is laughing. Their mouths are too full.
Before joining them, make sure you savor the aroma of pumpkin ravioli, sweet and earthy, in Marsala sauce with rosemary and honey. Pause to admire the deep-fried, crunchy perfection of veal Milanese, pounded tender and thin then topped with fresh arugula salad, lightly oiled and dotted with chopped tomatoes.
There is care in this cuisine, if not the décor. There is industrial carpeting on the floor (gray, not red). Your order is taken on an iPad. Decorations consists of pinecones, fake flowers, battery-powered votive candles and black-and-white stock images of Italy.
None of that seems to matter when the meal starts with appetizers such as grilled octopus on a cushion of potatoes that have been mashed with chorizo and sprinkled with toasted, crispy capers.
Brothers Alfredo and Jorge Nieto, with help from their mother, Elida Garcia, politely work the floor. Since opening in December, they have built a word-of-mouth following of fans that eschew sophistication for Red Carpet’s affordability and the practiced hand of chef Alveneo Amaya (Caffe Vialetto, Prima Pasta, Costa Med).
Ten years ago, arriving in Miami from Venezuela, Alfredo began to learn the business of Italian food. He started as a dishwasher and worked his way up to general manger in neighborhood restaurants, such as Caffe Italia and La Gastronomia in Coral Gables, and Basilico Ristorante in Virginia Gardens.
When he saved enough to open his own place, he sent for his brother, a former TV journalist who works by day as content manager for V-me Spanish broadcast network while waiting tables at night. Mom came soon after.
Perhaps the appeal of their place — across from Versailles, the Miami food monument to exile resiliency — is, in part, recognition of their glamour-free work ethic. This family hustles.
When the complimentary garlic rolls, dusted with the obligatory Parmesan and parsley, arrive at the table, we wonder whether we’ve been blinded by sentimentality. Then a salad of oiled greens, topped with lightly grilled prosciutto and blue cheese-stuffed figs shows up. Nah, there’s something more to like here than the American dream.
The kitchen makes its own pasta for lasagna and ravioli specials. The New York steak special, in green and black peppercorn sauce, is perfectly cooked to order. Herbed corvina with lemon caper sauce is light and flaky. A hearty meat sauce is substituted upon request for the mashed potatoes that accompany tender veal Marsala.
Not everything will knock your sandals off. The seafood linguine suffers from limp shrimp. Desserts such as tiramisu and lemon cream custard are standard.
But Alfredo Nieto has done his homework and studied hard for this moment. Miami, once again, benefits from a strip mall restaurant that doesn’t strip the wallet and surprises in all the right ways.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense. Follow Jodi Mailander Farrell on Twitter: @JodiMailander.
If You Go
Place: Red Carpet Italian Restaurant
Address: 3438 SW Eighth St., Miami
Rating: ☆ ☆ ½ stars (Good)
Contact: 305-529-4220, RedCarpetRestaurant.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 1 p.m.-8 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.
Prices: $5-$15 appetizers, $14-$25 entrees, $6.50-$8 desserts
FYI: VS, MC, AmEx; wine and beer only; free parking lot.
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)