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"Without the freedom to criticize, there is no worthy praise." Beaumarchais
The Ritz Carlton, Key Biscayne
No ironic or fusion foods at Cioppino at the Ritz Carlon in Key Biscayne; authentic ingredients are flown in twice a week directly from Italy make for exquisite specials and a wonderful dining experience
By Simone Zarmati Diament
The exhilarating view of the Miami skyline at night as you reach the top of the curve of the Key Biscayne Bridge on the way back from Key Biscayne, that alone is a good reason to go to the Ritz Carlton, Key Biscayne. And when you’ve had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, Cioppino, the pleasure is amplified.
Little has been done to renovate the restaurant since it first opened as Aria, yet the ambiance is different: it is relaxed with an open kitchen, chic window side tables overlooking the pool and the surf, soft lighting and weekend musicians playing in the background to couples, young families and groups of friends. Menus are promptly delivered before you dig into the bread basket filled with homemade flatbread crisps and commercial bread sticks, and Sommelier Jorge Mendoza doesn’t wait long to offer an aperitif and obliges with suggestions on the wonderful wine list with a good and well-priced selection of Italian and international wines
Cioppino feels more like a free-standing venue than a classic hotel restaurant. As such Cioppino has simple, albeit delicious Italian classics for everyone: like beef carpaccio; seared salmon with asparagus and sides; filet mignon with porcini sauce and grilled branzino or sea bass with sautéed spring vegetables and marinated tomatoes.
But where chef Ramon Guerrero truly shines is in the specials.
No ironic or fusion foods at Cioppino; the former corporate chef of Bice North and South America makes sure he gets authentic Italian ingredients like the heavenly Burrata, a creamy mozzarella cheese flown in twice a week directly from Italy, served with green beans and drops of extra virgin olive oil The olive oils and aged Balsamic vinegars are also imported from Tuscany and bring a whiff of Italy to Key Biscayne.
Chef Guerrero concocts exquisite Italian specialties. One often sees flowers on the end of baby zucchini in Italian markets, from locally grown zucchini that reach the market the day they're picked. The ones we had that night were lightly battered and fried stuffed with scampi and served with a spicy arrabiata sauce, a bit too fiery for the delicate zucchini flowers. Next came a paper thin swordfish carpaccio, barely seared with coarsely crunched peppers, drizzled with a light lemon sauce and extra virgin olive oil and served with a refreshing fennel salad sprinkled with confetti-diced tomatoes, fresh with celery and parsley. Carpaccio di Manzo is worth a try: the thinly sliced beef tenderloin with baby arugula, shaved parmesan cheese, is simply seasoned with lemon and extra virgin olive oil; and the chilled seafood salad Antipasto di Mare marinated in sun-dried tomatoes, with black olives and celery is made to order for the sweltering Miami summer.
I often wondered where to find really good pasta. At Cioppino all pastas are home made and superb. There’s Fusili Lucani: delicious with hints of smoke from speck (the Italian bacon produced in Alto Adige is brined in a blend of garlic, black pepper, juniper berries and bay leaves, then cold-smoked with sweet-scented maple and aged) and mixed with sage, butter and parmesan.
Pappardelle all’ Anatra are wide ribbons of egg pasta shaped into a delicate nest for earthy duck confit and duck ragout. Ravioli di Spinaci e Ricotta are thin pasta pouches filled with ricotta of Puglia , dressed with fried sage leaves and served with fresh spinach.
Then comes what the restaurant is known for: Cioppino. A bouillabaisse-like hearty rustic dish with fregolo (ground semolina pasta like an Italian couscous) is meant to be a peasant soup. I’d be a peasant any day if I were given the chance to dip my crostini rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil in the rich soup, cooked to perfection, redolent with plump scampi, fresh and tender calamari, mussels, Manila clams, chunks of moist fish, fregolo in a frangrant stock soup broth, smacchiato or barely touched with tomato sauce and a shot of wine.
Fish is a house specialty too and come in hefty portions: thick slabs of seared yellow fin tuna, sliced and served with artichoke and olive ragout, and very fresh sautéed spinach, is a simple but superb dish. So is Branzino alla Grillia, creamy and sweet-fleshed pan seared sea bass with sautéed spring vegetables and marinated tomatoes.
Meats are equally well-prepared. Some of the best meat from Colorado had made its way onto our plates. And it was treated with respect in the Italian tradition:P no marinade to transform the taste of a magnificent rib eye steak. It was just seasoned with salt and pepper, charred over coals, drizzled with olive oil and served with huge white asparagus tender and crisp and string beans.
Desserts by pastry Frederic Monnet are up to par with the food and come as triptychs, or signle portions: cheese cake with amaretto, Tiramisu, molten chocolate cake with ice cream. A mini version of floating island with caramelized meringue in sauce anglaise. Passion fruit custard in a liqueur glass. Very delicate and fragrant macaroons with raspberry and almonds....
Cioppino is a wonderful addition to Miami’s dining scene.