The Place: Gianni’s at the Villa not only respects the memory of late designer Gianni Versace but gives diners access to the lavish villa. You enter through an open courtyard done in small tiles and black pebbles embedded in cement with a nymph fountain in the center. There is a small dark bar to one side that is like a chapel with candles. The dining area is on a terrace overlooking the famous Medusa pool and at tables right by the pool set on faux grass, white tablecloth of course. Lush vegetation surrounds the pool and dining area, and if you are lucky, the sky will be clear enough to see stars.
The History: Casa Casuarina was built in 1927 by Alden Freeman, the heir to Standard Oil. He modeled the mansion on the “Alcazar de Colon” in Santo Domingo that was built in 1510 by Diego Columbus, son of Christopher Columbus. In 1992 while on vacation, designer Gianni Versace was attracted to the kneeling Aphrodite statue (he was obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology) and fell in love with the Mediterranean revival architecture of the property and purchased it. The restaurant opened two years ago when the property became a boutique hotel and chef Thomas Stewart was hired. Stewart, of Marietta, Georgia, graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta and after working in Mediterranean and tapas restaurants in Atlanta went to St. Thomas to join his mentor Richard Garcia, a James Beard award winner. After three years at Blue Havana, which won best restaurant in the Caribbean in 2007, he came to Miami two years ago to work at Gianni’s. His cuisine is Italian with a modern spin.
The Food: Antipasti include polenta with lemon preserves, pancetta and a crispy poached egg; pan seared Maine scallops on blackberry coulis with caviar; and poached Maine lobster with green pea foam and small cubes of sweet spring onion gel. Pastas range from bucatini with bottarga (cured mullet roe), cherry tomatoes, olive oil, parsley and garlic to spaghetti alla chittara (guitar string) with fresh tomato ragu, dry ricotta and basil. There’s also risotto with seasonal mushrooms and parmesan, saffron and lemon zest. For an entrée try seared Mediterranean dorade (sea bream) with zaalouk eggplant and artichoke crisps; pan-fried potato gnocchi with a heap of blue crab; king crab with mozzarella di buffalo, avocado and pane carrassao; or pan-seared Key West head-on prawns with carrots, squash, pepperoncini and saffron aioli. There’s also Wagyu filet mignon, bone-in grass-fed black Angus ribeye, a New York dry aged strip steak and lamb chops. A caramel covered ball of chocolate mousse resembles a shiny red candy apple for dessert.
You Didn’t Know This: Zaalouk is a warm Moroccan salad made with roasted eggplant bits simmered in tomato sauce with garlic, paprika, cumin and cayenne finished with a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon, best served as a side with plenty of pita.
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If You Go
: Gianni’s The Villa Casa Casuarina
: 1116 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach (across from Lummus Park)
: Tuesday-Sunday, 6 p.m. until the last guest leaves
: Antipasti $15-$36, pasta $24-$32, entrees $32-$59, sides $12