Miami restaurant review: Siena Tavern's Italian food is hearty -- and pricey

With China Grill-size shoes to fill, Siena Tavern, the Chicago import owned by a cartoon-accented Italian who made his name on “Top Chef,” had me skeptical from the word andare. However, Fabio Viviani’s new South Beach restaurant turns out some lovely plates of pricey Italian food with friendly service.

The space has been transformed from glittering Asian nightclub to a faux-rustic tavern with loads of burnished wood that glows beneath sparkling amber candles and pretty perforated light fixtures. The problem is, despite some kitschy touches like brass knockers on wooden doors, the space is so vast and commercial it can’t help feeling more like a factory than a tavern. 

High-back booths, rows of flat screens over the bar and Vegas-like crystal chandeliers lend to the clubby feel. As do the DJ and his dance tunes, bumping even when the restaurant is mostly empty. The air conditioning blasts so cold that I prefer a seat outside, surrounded by lush hedges and twinkling lights.

The menu has loads of small and large plates with plenty of appealing options. A rich Wagyu meatball swimming in a tangy red sauce with creamy ricotta cheese is irresistible. A thoughtful selection of wines by the glass, including a well-balanced proprietary blend of mostly Sangiovese from Sonoma, is a nice touch. 

Dishes like a kale Caesar and a chopped everything-but-the-kitchen-sink salad (pictured, above) are subtly dressed but one ingredient too heavy. The latter is like an antipasto platter that went through a food processor. Ingredients, including a mild Gorgonzola, are pristine, though the cannellini beans needed a few more hours of soaking.

Lighter options include crudos — fresh and beautifully presented with squiggles of citrus and microgreens. Other seasonal offerings like jumbo stone crab claws at $34 each seem a bit excessive.

Cicchetti, or snacks, can be as pleasant as our chirpy waiter. We sampled a nice fritto misto with one hot, salty fried shrimp, a few calamari ringlets and matchsticks of zucchini with a thick aioli dipping sauce.

The individual mushroom and truffle pizza had hardly a thread of fresh truffle and — thankfully — not much of that dreaded truffle oil, either. We sampled the full-size truffle pizza on another visit and found it similarly lacking. The crust, though nicely chewy and slightly scorched, could have used a pinch of salt. 

To make up for a lack of flavor, we asked our server for some seasonings. He eventually brought them, but only after our table wrapped up discussions of three ex-boyfriends, college-admission quirks and potential spring hairstyles — and our pizza had gone cold.

Pastas could have been better, too. Our so-called orecchiette did not have the distinctive ridged thumbprint that makes it look like an ear and helps sauce cling to it. In fact, it was more snail-shaped, suspiciously smooth and almost waxy, as if it came from a box.

A golf-ball-size hunk of buffalo mozzarella sat nearly untouched at the table though we were a bunch of cheese lovers. The accompanying array of candied pine nuts, a slightly more bitter than sweet eggplant agro dolce spread, did little to brighten it. 

Our stunningly crisp-edged wild king salmon was delicious over a velvety purée of celery root, slivers of orange and earthy pea shoots.

Unfortunately, super pricey entrées — including a $110 porterhouse for two and a $42 ossobuco with faro — make this rustic fare a bit out of most diners’ leagues.

The best thing is that servers and the kitchen were overly accommodating, offering to split shared plates even though we didn’t ask. They let us know they could put our salad dressings on the side, and they gave advice on the vast offerings without upselling or being pushy.

Desserts, including a Key lime icebox pie, are fun takes on classics. The pie is more like a semifreddo with tequila-infused layers of mouth-puckering lime. A buttery mound of monkey bread, stuck together with a syrupy caramel sauce and just a tiny smattering of candied hazelnuts, is an indulgent treat for those who like that kind of thing. 

More cavernous than tavernous, this newcomer with hearty fare and friendly staff is worth a try. Try going during happy hour — or for brunch, when bottomless mimosas or bloodies could numb the blow of the bill.

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