Miami restaurant review: Moyé captures the foods and flavors of Puglia

Bari is the densely populated capital of Apulia or Puglia (pronounced POOL-ya) that is the rugged region of Southern Italy, the heel of the boot that juts out into the Adriatic. It’s an area that tourists began to adore in droves over the past couple of decades. With its picturesque trulli, little round white homes that dot the landscape, handmade cheeses and groves of olive trees that produce some of the finest olive oil in the world, what’s not to love?

Chefs, too, began to explore the cooking of this region, known as cucina povera, or poor food. Indeed, it is simple peasant fare at heart, but it can veer toward rich and decadent with wholesome ingredients, including chicory, fava beans, farmhouse cheeses and loads of fresh fare from the sea. 

In the Barese dialect, Moyé means the time is now. And so it is. This adorable ristorante couldn’t come at a better moment as it watches Miami blooming all around it. 

Moyé should be the place to go now — if you manage to get through the crazy construction, one-way streets and tow-away zones that define downtown Miami’s Brickell district. Like its fratelli in Florence and Milan, this pretty little white box is welcoming as a glass of hearty primitivo on a brisk night.

Speaking of which, the all-Italian-all-the-time wine list is stocked with lots of obscure labels — in addition to the well-regarded brunellos and barberescos. Don’t fear, with their price points this reasonable, it’s easy to experiment.

The museum-like space with floor-to-ceiling windows is bright with straight-back, glossy white chairs and an open kitchen. It’s quite distinct from Pietro Vardeu and Tony Gallo’s original Sardinia on South Beach.

The menu is not what most Americans would know as typical Italian food. Take some time to look it over while nibbling on beautifully spongy squares of focaccia and crusty, golden rolls.

Sure, there is the requisite baked lasagna — delicious, by the way, with meltingly fresh sheets of hand-hewn pasta and a meaty ragu — as well as meatballs dotted with melty scamorza in tangy red sauce. But there is so much more.

The flavors are robust and fresh. A stunning carpaccio of salmon is a sunrise on a plate with lovely skeins of shaved fennel and sweet orange slivers. Paper-thin sheets of octopus are likewise tender and tasty. They benefit from spicy arugula and sweet cherry tomatoes.

A gorgeous octopus appetizer features two long tentacles over a smear of fava bean purée and a single cherry tomato that is more of a garnish than an item that needs to be listed on the menu.

Burrata, that insanely rich, creamy wonder that makes plain-old mozzarella seem like Kraft Singles, is made in-house. Phew! I was getting so tired of waiters at other restaurants bragging how the super-perishable fresh cheese was shipped from Italy. I have cousins who insist the milky mass made in the morning should be thrown away after lunch if it isn’t eaten. Here it is silken and creamy as it should be.

A staple of this southern region is fava beans and is often prepared as a purée with greens and crispy oil-soaked croutons. Here the dish could use a bit more in the greens department, but otherwise brought me back to my roots. 

Orecchiette is prepared in the classic style with well-braised, bitter broccoli rabe and a sauce that gets its saltiness from good anchovies. Other pastas, too, are beautifully handled, including tender spaghetti loaded with seafood. And, portions are thankfully petite, leaving room for real main courses.

Vegetables are also well-treated in salad options. The Barese is a mix of peppery arugula tamed by chunks of starchy red potato, tart smiles of orange slices, and shavings of licorice-y fennel. If you have never had a vegetable flan, the light and lovely little zucchini version here is a must-try with its smooth, custardy texture.

My only peeve is that in a few dishes, plates are made to look pretty, but the food is not as fulfilling or hearty as you would expect.

Desserts can be as simple as a rum-spiked granita made with watermelon juice or as fancy as miglefolie, the puffs of sugar-dusted pastry layered with whipped cream, Chantilly and fresh strawberries.

Service is sweet and well-intentioned if occasionally distracted. A lovely manager oversees the room with good humor and a keen eye.

Here’s hoping Miami diners are ready now to explore this delicious regional fare where the food, wine, setting and service are easy — and easy on the wallet. 

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