First Look: Gaia

Manny Hernandez

The goods: If you’ve been keeping up with Miami’s dining scene you may have noticed that Italian is the new steakhouse so put away the knives and break out the breadsticks. One such refined newcomer is Gaia Ristorante, a glossy South of Fifth spot from restaurateur Tom Billante (he of the popular Carpaccio-Villagio-Rosalia empire). In contrast to Billante’s other restaurants, this one aims for an upscale feel more in tune (both in price and atmosphere) with the city’s other high-end Italian joints like Casa Tua and Quattro. Naples-born chef Chef Gaetano is the charismatic force behind the kitchen, having successfully helmed Italian restaurants in South Korea, South Africa and Singapore.

Located in the rear of the Hilton Bentley Hotel, the glossy dining room occupies a serene pocket of South Beach outfitted with buttery leather chairs, fresh flowers and a marble bar. A semi-private dining table located near a floor-to-ceiling wine wall is a dramatic setting for special occasions. Additional seating is available outdoors by the pool patio, nicely ensconced from fray of neighboring Nikki Beach.

The grub: Regional Italian fare. The chef prides himself on a hands-on approach with his “walking menu,” taking the time to talk to each table and gauge their preferences for particular ingredients and dishes. This is also a boon to those with food allergies and dietary preferences as it’s not often you get to chat with the chef so freely about your needs. While customized meals are a fun luxury, the restaurant’s menu also offers plenty to keep diners busy. Prices skew high, given the restaurant’s posh environs. Starters range $10-$28, pastas in the mid-twenties and mains $29-$42.

Start off with the “mozz bar,” a cheese-lovers bounty of creamy buffalo mozzarella, bocconcini and burrata served with roasted peppers and prosciutto. Pastas run the gamut from orecchiette with oxtail, arugula, sun dried tomatoes to a puttanesca with orange tomatoes, swordfish and tuna and feather-light gnocchi bathed in a cream sauce tinged with tomatoes. Fish selections include a black cod chaperoned by porcini mushrooms and caramelized onions while the “carne” section of the menu comprises milk-fed veal, Colorado lamb and bone-in sirloin.

Desserts include an ethereal panna cotta with fresh berries and a soufflé-like chocolate cake.

Verdict: If you’re looking for customized Italian cooking in a refined setting, Gaia is your spot.

Gaia Ristorante, 101 Ocean Drive, 305-672-6635. Open Noon – 11 p.m., daily.