Zucca. The word conjures the plump, stuffed fiori di zucca that in Italy show up on every menu in town or country come spring. And, surely, the March timing was right for the blooming of this stunning flower of a restaurant in Coral Gables.
Zucca brings not only these luscious squash blossoms but also an unadulterated Italian experience with regional specialties from Sicily to Liguria. The unexpected hot spot is the result of more than 70 years of experience from the Venezuelan Da Silva Hospitality Group headed by Erasmo and Keiny Da Silva with Cesar and Beatriz Gambino. Their first U.S venture landed in the Hotel St. Michel.
They chose two exceptional talents and longtime Miami pros in general manager Lucio Zanon and head chef Simone Mua from Milan. The team worked together at Casa Tua, handling the front and the back of the house respectively.
It should come as no surprise that on my very first meal here, a spur of the moment drop-in after landing jet-lagged and hungry at MIA from a long trip, I was spotted.
From the moment we ordered our appetizers, I could feel eyes on us. What to do but smile graciously and enjoy the view?
The room has been transformed with living green walls, ropey chandeliers, silk and wood accents and white tablecloths to create a modern elegance the likes of which this space has not seen since I can remember.
And of course I had to try the namesake blossoms, which also include thumb-sized baby zucchini attached. My favorite version is stuffed with mozzarella and a subtle, salty bite of anchovies as crisp and light as Japanese tempura. Exquisite.
A classic antipasti platter rivals some of the best I have had, with skeins of loosely layered prosciutto di Parma and mortadella specked with thick white dots of velvety lardo all cut on the Ferrari of slicers, the Legend, plus chunks of crystally, aged parmigianino and simple batons of honest focaccia with see-through coins of zucchini and loads of fresh basil. Sharp and vibrant, an olive tapenade shines, as does the olive oil.
Vitello tonnato, a northern favorite, is done stunningly here, with the veal still pink and tender thanks to sous vide technique and served over a pool of silken tuna sauce dotted with fat capers.
Pastas made in house are excellent as well, with right-sized first-course portions cooked to a toothsome al dente. Tagliatelle is sautéed with a tangle of wild mushrooms. A welcome difference here are regional specialties not often seen around town — including trofie, tiny hand-rolled twists with a bright mixed green pesto and toasted baby pine nuts as well as spaghetti with generous grated bottarga, the tasty salted, cured fish roe famous in Sicily and Sardinia.
Bucatini al cacao e pepe, the thin, hollow straws of pasta, are sauced judiciously. But the cheesy decadence offset by big hunks of cracked black pepper works so well. Linguine alle vongole sports tiny almond-sized clams in the lightest of white wine broths.
The kitchen is happy to split dishes and speed up or slow down the pace of a meal. Just ask.
Sweet, creamy locally made burrata is served with sharp lampascioni, well-cured black olives with cherry tomatoes.
But it is the seafood that deserves special note. On every visit we found the simple and elegant fish to be prepared in the most perfect way possible. Menu prices are high for these pristine piscine entrees but well worth it.
Chilean sea bass, a fish we hadn’t ordered for years partly because it was so insipid and partly because it was threatening to disappear due to overfishing, was so gorgeously prepared here over a smooth celery root puree and slivers of pickled red onions and a drizzle of bright herb infusion that I’m tempted to get in my car right now to have it again.
Mediterranean sea bass is grilled with the skin-on so it is crispy and golden and the flesh still juicy and moist with the flavor of the sea, while the whole sea bass in a salt crust for two is equally flavorful.
Like everything else here, the wine and cocktail program is thoughtful and distinctive. Plenty of enticing options make it a pleasure to order.
Zucca isn’t perfect. What is? Drawbacks include a slightly musty smell that pervades the lobby and the bar area, especially on rainy nights. A few bad apples in the service area are inevitable, too, in Miami. Most of the staff in their snappy bowties and suspenders are gracious, knowledgeable and welcoming.
On the food front, the roast chicken was served in oddly small, overcooked pieces — a disappointment to be sure. The tiramisu on one visit was decidedly fridge-worn; on another it was moist and well balanced with fresh cocoa on top and fresh sliced strawberries. But a selection of incredible cheeses may still be a better way to go.
Regulars (or critics who have been spotted) should expect a complimentary round of frosty and bracing house-made limoncella. Grazie.
Follow Victoria Pesce Elliott on Instagram and Twitter @VictoriaPesceE. For the latest restaurant inspection reports, visit dine.miami.com. Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
If You Go
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ (Very Good)
Address: Hotel St. Michel, 162 Alcazar Ave., Coral Gables
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday and Monday. Brunch ($65/adult and $30/child under 12) is Sunday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Bar is open daily from noon to 1 a.m. (happy hour with half-price drinks and discounted bar food from 5 to 8 p.m.)
Prices: appetizers and first plates $17-$26; soup and salads $9-$14; main plates $24-$48; sides $7-$9; dessert $10-$12.
FYI: Valet parking $6, metered street parking and public lot; full bar; reservations suggested; AE, DC, MC, VS.
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)