Antonio Mermolia: keeping the Italian flag flying in Miami Beach

Traditional cuisine and plenty of good ideas. The happy case of Sirenuse at the Four Seasons Surf Club in Florida

03-04-2018

Last year Antonio Mermolia, 34, from Gioia Tauro (Reggio Calabria), became chef at restaurant Le Sirenuse Miami, part of the Four Seasons Surf Club in Miami Beach, 9011 Collins Avenue, tel. +1.786.4822280

The Surf Club legend in Miami first started in the Twenties. On board his Marybelle, tyre tycoon Harvey Firestone was impressed by this ocean-facing part of North Beach. He had a club d’élite built on the beach and Winston Churchill immediately followed the call. The politician often hid in his cabana to paint the Ocean’s waves. Over the years, the greatest jazz players of the time played by the pool, with Frank Sinatra or Liz Taylor revelling in a hardly discreet way.

After decades of oblivion, the Surf Club came to new life over a year ago, following the candid design of the Four Seasons, the hotel chain founded in 1961 by Canadian Issy Sharp – until in 2006 Bill Gates and Saudi prince al Walid bin Talal become the majority shareholders. They transformed it into a 3-building, 77-suite and luxury residence site worth 1000 dollars per night on average. Most of all, it is at last completed by an ambitious restaurant project given the chain has always stood out for its great hospitality but surely not for its fine dining.

The restaurant serves Italian cuisine and has a familiar name, Le Sirenuse, the same characterising the hotel/treasure chest of the Sersale family in Positano, on the Amalfi Coast. The mother of the 34-year old Calabrian chef at Sirenuse Miami is also from Amalfi. He’s already had plenty of experience in the United States: «My family runs Villa Calliope», says Antonio Mermolia, who speaks fluent Spanish and English, «a small hotel in Gioia Tauro. That’s where I first started to cook. After a short experience at Capinera in Taormina, seven years ago they hired me at Il Punto in New York». Three years later, Davide Scabin hired him next-door: he became the chef de cuisine at Mulino a Vino, in the Meatpacking District. An intense phase followed, in 2015, by the opening of Capatosta at the Flatiron, now closed. «I went back to Italy, and I would have stayed there, expect I got this offer from the Four Seasons…».

The ocean-facing Four Seasons Hotel at The Surf Club, North Beach, Miami (photo Four Seasons)

The ocean-facing Four Seasons Hotel at The Surf Club, North Beach, Miami (photo Four Seasons)

The dining room inside Le Sirenuse Miami

The dining room inside Le Sirenuse Miami

The outdoor space

The outdoor space

Little over a year after opening, Le Sirenuse Miami is already one of the best Italian restaurants in all of Florida. An establishment almost always full (it seats 77 people, with two shifts, at lunchtime and in the evening) and a very successful Mediterranean offer. «In these years working in the United States», points out Mermolia, «I learnt you cannot reproduce the beautiful avant-garde we’ve experienced in the past few years. Here people want tradition, Italian home cooking. And I try to give it to them in the best possible way, with impeccable ingredients and dignified presentations».

Be it a recipe for the restaurant, an aperitif for the adjacent Champagne Bar, be it breakfast, room service or the swimming pool menu, the chef keeps at a safe distance from caricatures: «If someone asked me tomorrow to add spaghetti with meatballs or fettuccine Alfredo to the menu, I’d leave». He also keeps at a safe distance from some widespread and unsuccessful influences: «You can’t add coriander to linguine with clams». In his version, with Gentile pasta from Gragnano, he uses clam broth instead of water, a trick that results in gushing flavours.

Yet his signature dish is Spaghetto al pomodoro e basilico. Mermolia’s version includes a laborious preparation, with three different sauces, a base of concassé tomato with basil, garlic and oil; ragù made with fried, cold and then blended date tomatoes, and then pasta, half cooked in tomato water, made with tomato skins. These tricks result in an intense and profound palate. «This dish is our great passport to the world», says chef, «and I truly cannot understand why we don’t make it more often, in Italy and abroad». So true. And who cares if the tomatoes come from organic farms in Ohio instead of from Vesuvius?

Scampi in rice tempura

Scampi in rice tempura

Spaghetto al pomodoro e basilico

Spaghetto al pomodoro e basilico

As for the fish, it’s not as easy: «Generally speaking, Caribbean fish has little in common with the fish from our seas. In the hot season, it arrives here already half-cooked. But I don’t give up: there’s a guy who brings me some Mediterranean species once a week. Plus the local halibut is delicious». True, the one they served with roasted cabbage petals and thyme was exemplary in terms of tenacity and aroma.

The same applies to the Battuto di scampi, garnished with fennel, orange and peranzana olives, a triptych as Calabrian as it gets: «In time, I’d like to infuse the flavours of my region more and more», he explains. Or Caprese calda, which doesn’t play with buffalo milk mozzarella foam or a destructured mozzarella, but can be recognised in its typical domestic warmth. Simple ingredients, prepared in a classic way, without technical tricks that nullify some traditional approximations. This is the most intelligent way to keep up with Thomas Keller or Mauro Colagreco, prominent chefs who are to open in Miami by 2019, under the same Four Seasons establishment.

Mermolia with Friulan restaurant manager Dario Vigil

Mermolia with Friulan restaurant manager Dario Vigil

How about the future? «Returning to Italy is my dream, but not now. When the day will come, I’d like to open a high quality trattoria, like the early Davide Oldani. Offer excellent food, for 25 euros».

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso

Le Sirenuse Miami
Four Seasons Surf Club
9011 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach, Florida
United States
+1.786.4822280
Average prices: entrées 28, first courses 32, main courses 50, desserts 12 dollars


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