Miami restaurant review: La Moderna in Miami Beach has a winning recipe for Italian classics

La Moderna in Miami Beach
La Moderna in Miami Beach

It’s no wonder La Moderna, the charming and authentic addition to Miami Beach’s Sunset Harbour neighborhood, is so good. It’s a relative of the remarkable Fratelli la Bufala, which has more than 100 outlets around the world — including our very own here on Fifth Street.

Not only do these bros know how to throw dough, but here, with Manuel Lanni in the kitchen, they demonstrate a deft hand with pastas, salads, grilled meats, seafood and full meals that extend beyond Italian classics. 

Owner Luca D’Angelo and GM Larry Mele have perfected the art of hospitality in a way that is as rare as a Justin Bieber sighting after his last arrest here.

The excellent food, extraordinary service and lovely setting — a sort of post-industrial urban design with wood tables and flattering pendant lighting — make for a fantastic addition to an already hip part of town. Despite the apocalyptic rubble of street construction outside, this welcome oasis with seating for about 60 inside and several dozen on the sidewalk is worth braving the debris. 

A stunning copper bar hung with flatscreens is the backdrop for bar manager Valentino Longo’s and executive mixologist Rusty Cerven’s spirit magic. Classics are done right, and modern interpretations are inspired. Kama & Sutra, made with Templeton rye, ginger beer, cactus pear syrup, whisper of lime and bitters, is dressed with perfect little cubes of candied ginger and is as smooth as the staff, who are attentive without ever seeming intrusive. 

Moderna’s wine selection includes lots of Italian sleepers and some great New World pours, too, at affordable prices.

Food choices, of course, include puffy Neapolitan-style pizzas proofed for days and gorgeously scorched under judicious layers of well-curated ingredients that might include artichoke hearts, melting pools of mozzarella and see-through skeins of gorgeously rosy, imported culatello (dry-cured center cut ham). These eat-with-a-fork pizzas are made in a wood-burning oven just like their ancestors from Napoli. 

But pastas, too, are irresistible. A vermicelli shows up as an al dente nest of shiny, sturdy noodles bound in a rich, eggy carbonara dotted with guanciale and generous shavings of fresh black truffle. Daily specials are always worth sampling, including a light, soupy risotto with bitey arborio rice and tiny, tender clams. 

Salads also are done in lovely Italian style, with the freshest shaved vegetables and the sheerest touch of dressing. We sampled a beautiful kale salad chopped fine and dotted with pinky-size nibs of fresh white crab meat and little grins of sweet orange segments. The arugula and artichoke is a satisfying assemblage of the thistle showered with shaved parmesan and jewels of pomegranate seeds that pop with color and juice.

For anyone who has never sampled stracchino cheese, you must order the heavenly little flan served over a pool of emerald green zucchini puree that is as bright as a summer day. A little crisp of guanciale lends a nice crunch of salt. 

Classic polpette, or little meatballs, are another signature dish. These golden, bite-size pops are served in a bowl with a side of tangy, smooth tomato sauce. 

And, speaking of meat, who would have guessed that this Italian import would have one of the beach’s best burgers? It’s served on a toasty ciabatta roll that’s slathered in homemade mayonnaise and layered with flash-sautéed heirloom spinach and a slice of guanciale for extra salt and smoke. 

The only menu item I feel required to warn readers about is the fried squash blossoms. Normally a favorite of mine when done right, they looked and tasted like carnival fare on a recent visit. Three logs of deep-fried cheese with neon-hued sauces were as leaden as a hammer on a Strongman game. 

Desserts include a cheesecake made with stracchino, a classic tiramisu and a light pineapple carpaccio with lemon sorbet. Panna cotta, a specialty of the Piemonte region and one of my perpetual guilty pleasures, had nice creamy sweetness but sat a bit too long in the fridge. The one we sampled had lost its jiggle and formed a skin. 

Though we did not complain or even mention it, our waitress noticed as we were paying our bill that we had eaten only a bite. As we were walking out of the restaurant, she politely detained us so she could run our card through again to deduct the price of our dessert. “The manager and the owner insist,” she explained. I can count on exactly no hands how many times that has happened to me in Miami. 

La Moderna, the elegant but casual newcomer, has great pedigree and it shows. That’s because the genitori, parents, of this new kid on the block are old pros.

Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Victoria Pesce Elliott on Twitter and Instagram: @VictoriaPesceE.