Italian Chic

Zucca Restaurant, With its Northern Italian Focus, Pulls off the Delicate Balance Between Simple Fare and Sophistication

April 2018

There is something in the modern Italian sensibility – a subtlety of design, an understatement of elegance – that elevates the simple to the sublime. Whatever that magic is, it is in full force at Zucca, which is celebrating its one-year anniversary in the hallowed haunts of Restaurant St. Michel’s old digs on Ponce de Leon and Alcazar. 

For those of you who remember the Restaurant St. Michel, it was an icon of Coral Gables romantic dining. It closed five years ago, and its replacements have fallen short – until now. Zucca brings back to the brick-and-vine Hotel St. Michel a cuisine worthy of its predecessors, albeit from a different ethnic tradition.

Zucca takes over what used to be the Restaurant St. Michel

The cuisine of Zucca is northern Italian. More specifically it comes from the Lombardy region around Milan, where Chef Simone Mua was raised and where he learned to cook from his family at an early age. The result is authentic, artisanal food from a region of Italy that specializes in slow braising and stewing, and where rice and polenta are the dominant starches rather than pasta. “I cook simple food” he says. “I grew up with food. Both of my parents were excellent cooks and I learned from them.”

This is immediately evident in the signature dishes on the menu, including a slow-cooked Ossobuco con Risotto Alla Milanese – oxtail with saffron risotto. A tad pricey, but a huge portion that is delightfully flavorful as it falls off the bone. We also tried a risotto with mixed greens, unusual but refreshingly light and creamy.

Ossobuco con Risotto Alla Milanese

If you want pasta, of course Chef Mua – who previously served as chef at Miami Beach’s famed Casa Tua – has plenty to offer, all well priced. Our waitress recommended the pasta with filet mignon and sun-dried tomatoes, which was perfectly prepared al dente. It was like a family meal in Milan, a comfort country dish. Equally pleasing was a tagliatelle al funghi misti – homemade pasta sautéed with wild mushrooms. Rich and delicious, and not suffering from too much salt, the crutch of chefs less accomplished than Mau.

Of course, no meal should go without Zucca’s ultimate signature dish, from which the restaurant derives its name: The Fiori di Zucca Ripieni Di Mozzarella – fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella cheese. The chef does a variation with ricotta cheese and lemon zest, which is a little lighter. We preferred the first variation, which included anchovies: crunchy and creamy all at once, filled with flavor.

Chef Simone Mua was raised in the Lombardy region around Milan

Also not be missed are some of the antipasti dishes, including a terrific grilled “Portuguese” octopus which might well win over diners not used to eating such fare. It was just right, tasty but not rubbery, served with string beans, potatoes, olives, cherry tomatoes and a parsley pesto sauce. So Mediterranean: rustic elements of top quality, the mixture creating a savory undertone. An even greater burst to the palate came from the Vitello Tonnato, thinly sliced veal tenderloin served over a tuna reduction with capers that gave it a nice, salty punch.

Not to be underestimated is Zucca’s wine selection, from their glass-enclosed 1,000-plus bottle wine cellar. Somalier Diego Rech is superbly knowledgeable about his wines, ready with a recommendation and even an anecdote about the vineyard. We stayed with Italian wines, enjoying first a delightful 2013 Amarone della Valpolicella Chianti and then falling in love with a rich 2011 Guilia Negri Barolo. 

I grew up with food. Both of my parents were excellent cooks and I learned from them

Chef Simone Mua

The other elements of the cuisine package are of equal quality, from the bread with olive paste to the dessert menu (don’t miss the ricotta cheesecake). But of nearly equal importance is the décor of Zucca.

Ricotta cheesecake

Deep green, chocolate brown and silver grey are the dominant three colors – moss green columns and forest green velvet curtains that balance the smoky brown walls and a silver-grey leather banquet that runs the length of the long wall fronting Ponce. 

The seating wraps around a large open bar in the center of the room, which glows from banked lighting above and copper colored lamps hanging down. Each table of black stained wood is lit by a baby spot from above which allows you to read a held-out menu while softening to darkness for the diners. 

The overall effect, like the food, is a fusion of simple elements that manages to be worldly, refined, and cultivated without being pretentious. It has attitude, but quiet attitude, with just the right amount of noise from diners’ chatter – some of it in Italian, always a good sign.

Sitting in Zucca makes you feel like you are in modern Milan, a city known for its excellence in modern design. Like the cuisine of Chef Mau, it is elementary yet sophisticated. Zucca promises to age well, and to become as iconic as the famed St. Michel itself.

Sitting in Zucca makes you feel like you are in modern Milan

 ZUCCA is located at 162 Alcazar Avenue, Coral Gables. For reservations, call 786.580.3731