Restaurants, like people, change. For better or worse.
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Bocce has changed surnames (to Ristorante from Bar), changed chefs (twice) and changed menus to better showcase the rustic comforts of Italian cooking. The restaurant seems to have found its groove in its current incarnation, with Naples-born chef Nunzio Fuschillo running the kitchen.
Fuschillo’s fresh mozzarella has the unmistakable briny tang and yielding chewiness that only comes from being made the same day. His housemade pastas — from beet ravioli to ricotta cavatelli to oven-baked sheets of lasagna — benefit from the same fresh-as-it-gets texture and flavor.
In a city where carpaccio has been translated a thousand ways, Bocce’s traditional interpretation is a welcome respite. Beautifully raw beef tri-tip is sliced paper-thin and served under a shower of sharp, peppery arugula and pecorino hunks. The meat isn’t served refrigerator-cold, either, allowing its minerally, beefy flavor to bloom.
Bocce’s bustling indoor-outdoor space affords diners eating both inside and out a view of the kitchen and the intoxicating aroma wafting from its wood-burning oven. A patio seat by the bocce court, with a negroni or a healthy pour of a super Tuscan in hand, is a fine place to watch midtown shoppers and gym rats buzz by.
Antipasti go well with fresh-baked bread that’s handsomely served in a paper sleeve with compound butter and good olive oil.
Better still: smoky, grilled crostini that accompany lamb meatballs. Three golfball-size orbs — soft yet sufficiently dense, with little discernible filler — sit in a shallow puddle of sweetly acidic marinara and a dollop of creamy goat cheese.
Authentically Italian servers are charming as they dole out menu pointers with a smile, and bussers are inconspicuously efficient as they clear plates and reset silverware between courses.
Visits to Bocce earlier in its lifetime revealed a kitchen where salt reigned supreme. Not now.
Oven-blistered carrots have enough salt to suss out their earthy sweetness, while a schmear of mascarpone and crumbles of pistachio granola also walk the salty-sweet line.
A thick piece of Scottish salmon — pan-seared for a deep golden-brown crust and cooked to the medium side of medium-rare — borrows citrusy, briny flavors from the orange-braised fennel and capers on its plate.
Fuschillo adds to and subtracts from Bocce’s menu based on feedback from customers, whom he greets during table visits and with an occasional “Buona sera!” upon arrival. He recently pulled a side of broccoli rabe because diners thought it was too bitter, and he added an unorthodox lasagna after it was a hit during a brunch trial.
The white lasagna — layered with gorgonzola sauce, nibs of pancetta and coarsely mashed skin-on potatoes — is the kind of dish that you know is bad for you, but you keep tricking your brain into having one more blissful bite. Next thing you know, it’s all gone.
Entrees are limited to two fish and two meat dishes, leaving Fuschillo some room to add more. In the Italian tradition, however, some meat-and-cheese antipasti followed by homemade pasta, a light dessert and digestivo should be enough to sate most diners.
And if you do have dessert, I recommend a rectangle of ricotta cheesecake topped with stewed strawberries, shaved chocolate and micro mint. It’s delightful with a double espresso.
Consistency is everything in the restaurant business. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a time and place for change. Bocce has evolved into a very good Italian restaurant that is worthy of repeat visits.
Critics dine unannounced at the Miami Herald’s expense. Evan S. Benn: 305-376-4624, @EvanBenn