Giancarlo “Wendy” Cacciatori can take a hint.
When a restaurant group hired him as a consultant to come to Miami, eat for two weeks and then advise them what sort of Italian restaurant they should open, he didn’t vacillate: regional Italian. Bologna, to be specific.
They didn’t listen. But they should have.
So Cacciatori, who was born in Bologna, decided to open such a restaurant himself. He left his restaurants in the Emilia Romagna region in northern Italy for his family to run, and he moved to South Beach with his wife about two years ago to open Via Emilia 9.
His idea was as simple as it was romantic: He would only create dishes you could eat while traveling the via Emilia, an ancient road that runs through some of the most iconic food cities in Italy, including Parma, Modena and Bologna. The road begins at kilometer marker 9 (hence the name), and thus begins your giro culinario.
The menu plays to Cacciatori’s strength: fresh-made pasta. More than a dozen different pasta dishes are offered in the primi section of the menu, where Cacciatori shows off varying sauces and fillings to highlight his delicately crafted pasta, which he or his staff hand-make in the window of the dining room throughout the day.
Through the floor-to-ceiling windows of this narrow restaurant wedged between Alton Road and Lenox Avenue, you can see the entire restaurant, a space divided into two distinct sections remodeled last year.
In one, a market of imported Italian products used in the cuisine, Cacciatori cooks in an open kitchen across from a lunch-style counter. Whether a quiet Monday or a busy Friday night, Cacciatori is at the burners, moving from pots full of his deep, rich ragu and boiling pasta that make up the primi menu to sizzling skillets where he finishes “secondi” dishes such as his crispy, fried breaded chicken in the cotoletta alla Bolognese.
On the other side of a dividing wall is the warmly lit dining room, where the pasta station sat at rest by dinner time. By then, Cacciatori’s brilliance had turned to the kitchen.
Appetizers are simple but impressive. The ball of imported burrata cheese cuts open to reveal a creamy, cold center that spreads over the ripe, locally harvested cherry tomatoes and bright arugula dressed only in fragrant, imported olive oil. Cacciatori reveals his skill with his so-called eggplant carpaccio, a sort of trifle of eggplant, ragu and melted mozzarella cheese with shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano aged 24 months sprinkled over top. Each bite reveals a layers of flavors that make your mouth water for his main courses.
And the pasta does not disappoint. Cacciatori somehow manages to delicately fold a filling of prosciutto aged 18 months, mortadella, pork loin and 24-month aged Parmigiano-Reggiano inside light, tender tortellini in cream sauce — his signature dish for a reason. The pasta is perfectly cooked, the filling reflective of its complexity, and all of it deceiving while it sits humbly on a plate of moderate portion.
Around the table, there is more praise for Via Emilia 9’s pasta. The lasagna tastes of a grandmother’s kitchen. The gnocchi (90 percent potato, 10 percent flour) are made to fill and please in one of three sauces (tomato ragu, four-cheese or Bolognese). And the tagliatelle with mushrooms, sausage and cream sauce are an open-faced version of tortellini and just as rewarding.
The pasta and rich sauces beg for one of the wines, ranging from $35 to $300, displayed in small crates on a chalkboard wall.
The one miss among the pasta was the tagliatelle with ragu. Though rich in flavor, it was overcooked several minutes on one visit. It seems like an avoidable error a chef of his pedigree would not knowingly repeat.
Perhaps it’s worth turning that discerning eye toward a dish like the cotoletta alla Bolognese in the secondi section of the menu. The layered breaded fried chicken with Parma ham and Parmigiano was crispy, flavorful, rewarding, but it left an oily pool on the plate, either from the fry oil or the grated cheese on top which had only half melted. The oil leached into a simple arugula and iceberg lettuce salad, which you could look at as either simple or unimaginative. The dish lacked the finesse of the pasta on the other side of the menu. But if home cooking is what you’re after, the dish speaks the language of an Italian family kitchen.
A section of the menu is dedicated to piadine, homemade flatbreads thinner and crispier than a pita that are folded over into a sort of sandwich. Inside you’ll find it stuffed with ham and Stracchino cheese or prosciutto di Parma, mozzarella and arugula. The sandwiches feel like they would fit better on the lunch counter side of the restaurant rather than in the warm dining room. But those who want a simple, tasty and interesting sandwich for dinner won’t be disappointed — especially since it is stuffed full (and you will be, too).
Desserts follow the restaurant’s simple approach to regional fare, but in their plainness lack some of the deft of the rest of the meal. The tiramisu is mostly cream with traces of coffee-soaked savoiardi ladyfingers. Their signature “chocolate salami,” a sort of chocolate ganache with nuts and a cookie dough consistency pressed into a salami shape, is novel if a bit perplexing. It left us wanting the restaurant’s house-made gelato, which was sold out on several visits during prime dinner hours.
The restaurant doesn’t apologize for this lack of South Beach showiness. It revels in it.
Via Emilia 9 aims for an authentic esperienza di viaggio, a tour of home-cooked meals through the heart of northern Italy. From the service (including Cacciatori’s wife, Valentina, as a server) to the cuisine, the restaurant feels as attentive and welcoming as an Italian home.
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If You Go
Place: Via Emilia 9
Address: 1120 15th St., Miami Beach
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ (Very Good)
Contact: 786-216-7150; ViaEmilia9.com
Hours: Open seven days, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $8-$19. Salumi boards, $19-$30. Entrees $13-$32. Sandwiches $9-$12. Desserts $7-$12.
FYI: Wine and beer available. Metered street parking for non-Miami Beach residents costs $4 an hour; garages within several blocks walking distance are $2 an hour. Reservations accepted as are all major credit cards.
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)