The paint shakers no longer shimmy, but trying to choose dinner at Crust USA, a new Italian eatery in a repurposed Sherwin-Williams store by the Miami River, can be as challenging as picking out a paint color.
More than 80 small plates, salads, pastas, sandwiches, entrees and pizzas populate the menu, which emphasizes Mediterranean fare, but throws in burgers, cheesesteaks, chicken wings and yucca fries along with a Macedonian pancake for dessert.
Originally focusing on takeout when it first opened this summer, the affordable Crust now serves dinner in the awakening Miami River neighborhood, home to Garcia’s, Casablanca Seafood Bar & Grill and, more recently, Seaspice.
The angular dining room for 50 is wedged off a busy intersection near the foot of the Fifth Street Bridge. Parking is pretty impossible in a pocket-size lot, but valet service is conveniently offered for free, an unaccustomed treat.
Chef Klime Kovaceski, originally from Macedonia, has casually shrugged off his fine-dining past at Crystal Café, which he ran with acclaim for 10 years in Miami Beach until he sold it in 2004.
After turning out distinctive, thin-crust pizzas at Trio on the Bay in North Bay Village and helping revamp the menu at Fort Lauderdale’s New River Pizza & Grill, Kovaceski devotes an entire page at Crust to his newfound focus: specialty and custom pizzas with gourmet toppings, such as grilled octopus with prosciutto, champignon mushrooms with leeks, and beef tenderloin tips with caramelized onion.
The restaurant’s entrance — flanked by heavy nautical chains on the outside and two artificial trees on the inside — is brightened by the presence of Kovaceski’s Australian wife, Anita, who warmly greets diners and remains attentive and friendly throughout the evening. Originally a 1950s house before it became a paint store, Crust is the couple’s first business venture together.
Below a large Moroccan-style lantern hanging from a black ceiling, chunky wood tables, a tile floor and an assortment of gilt-framed mirrors keep with the budget-minded theme. Flatscreens flash behind an extra-wide wooden bar, but the atmosphere is dominated by a fun mix of music that ranges from Santana to Sinatra to the Psychedelic Furs.
Kovaceski’s dense and moist shrimp cakes with basil aioli are a standout among the small plates, even when swimming in a pool of tomato coulis that threatens to overwhelm their delicate flavor. Another fine beginner: pita crisps with a Mediterranean trio of hummus, refreshing tzatziki sauce, and ajvar, a smoky red-pepper Macedonian relish that shouts out to the chef’s formal training in Croatia.
Fried calamari with lemon-horseradish sauce was tough and overcooked, a simple dish that suffered from too much heat.
From six salads that can be topped with grilled or blackened chicken, salmon, mahi mahi, shrimp or butcher steak, the ubiquitous kale had snap and sweetness from dried cranberries, pine nuts, shaved carrots, asiago cheese and pomegranate vinaigrette.
Eleven pastas and risottos are hearty staples on the menu, with a respectable penne Bolognese. It pairs well with a side dish of hot parsley-garlic rolls to wipe up the beefy sauce.
Seafood risotto boasted an abundance of shrimp, mussels, calamari, clams and fish, but was not given enough time to absorb the tomato-saffron sauce, leaving it soupy.
Among a dozen classic entrees that included pecan-crusted trout, kebabs and lamb chops, the egg-battered chicken Francese was tender and satisfying in a lemony wine-caper sauce.
The restaurant’s lone steak — a grilled butcher cut — was tough and didn’t live up to its “succulent” billing, something even the peppercorn demi-glace couldn’t disguise. Accompanying “truffle” fries were bland and forgettable.
Grilled tenderloin pizza suffered from overcooked thick beef tips that, along with roasted mushrooms and caramelized onion, weighed down the pie. Instead of the thin, misshapen crusts Kovaceski crafted at Trio, pizzas here are thick and chewy, with dough that easily turns soggy under ambitious, overly abundant toppings.
But Crust’s young and inexperienced wait staff is eager to please. When our chicken came with mashed potatoes instead of the risotto promised on the menu, our waiter hustled to replace it with the rice dish, this time rich and creamy. Both of our visits ended with complimentary sweet samples of Port.
Classic desserts include a moist chocolate cake, Key lime pie and tiramisu, along with limoncello cake and zeppoli, deep-fried Italian dough balls dusted with powdered sugar.
Kovaceski’s trademark hybrid style is often lost in offerings that try to be everything to all people. As a good value, however, Crust will no doubt satisfy nighttime appetites among new residents and adventurers in this re-emerging historic neighborhood.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense.