Sunset Harbour's Sardinia Continues to Enchant
by jordan melnick
South Beach gets plenty of sunshine. But when it rains, it floods. “Sometimes we call it Venice,” says Pietro Vardeu, executive chef and co-owner of Sunset Harbour eatery Sardinia Enoteca Ristorante.
In the past, when the flooding turned Sardinia into an island (fittingly, considering its namesake), employees would rent electric carts with oversize tires to ferry customers from a nearby parking lot to the restaurant’s front door.
“You have to do whatever it takes,” says Vardeu’s partner, restaurateur Antonio Gallo. That attitude helps to explain how Sardinia managed to thrive in Sunset Harbour in the years before the neighborhood became a culinary hotbed, which now boasts a growing lineup of hip eateries, a gourmet café, a yoga studio, a high-end juice bar, a Fresh Market, and, perhaps most consequentially, a 460-space parking garage.
Vardeu and Gallo, both natives of Italy, opened Sardinia in 2006 to serve the simple, authentic cuisine of their homeland to South Beach locals. Save for Purdy Lounge and the now-closed restaurant Joe Allen, the neighborhood wasn’t a destination, and Vardeu, who had a stint as food and beverage director at Lincoln Road staples Tiramesu and Van Dyke Café, received plenty of grief for his decision to open in the area. “When I mentioned to some friends of mine that I chose this [location],” he recalls, “it was like, ‘We know you’re crazy, but you must be out of your mind.’”
But when Vardeu bet on Sunset Harbour back then, he looked past the area’s lack of foot traffic and name recognition, and considered the bayside setting, the direct connection to the well-off residents of the Venetian Islands, and the gravitational pull of a nearby futuristic Publix designed by renowned architect Carlos Zapata. It was a prescient move.
Of course, Sardinia would have drowned in obscurity if the menu and ambience hadn’t cut it. It has struck a modern/rustic balance, with the light from the restaurant’s blue-tiled pine-burning oven casting a warm glow on the heavy wood tabletops and stone floors, and an abacus-like wall of wine bottles holding 260 varieties, with an emphasis on southern Italy. That oven is the heart of the restaurant—and it’s not used for Italian-style pizza, but rather for roasting vegetables and entrées such as branzino, Colorado lamb shank, and a 24-ounce bone-in rib eye at up to 700 degrees. On the lighter side, crowd-pleasers include Sardinian bread topped with tomato sauce, Pecorino, and a poached egg; distinctive seafood dishes such as octopus carpaccio and baby clams with Sardinian couscous; and burrata cheese made in-house every morning.
It’s no coincidence that today Sunset Harbour is a foodie destination. Four lauded Pubbelly restaurants in the area routinely have lines out their doors, doing good business in the neighborhood alongside other food and retail concepts.
Far from feeling threatened, Vardeu is grateful for the establishments that followed his lead. “I thank God that the kids from the Pubbelly group came here,” he says. His business has increased by 18 percent since the original Pubbelly opened. The feeling is mutual. Andreas Schreiner, a founding partner in the Pubbelly Group, credits Vardeu “for taking the big risk” in Sunset Harbour. “He was the first one to really stick it out.”
The perfect balance of foot traffic and a quaint neighborhood setting allows patrons to take inspiration from local Italians; you can sip a glass of home-country wine in the outdoor seating area and watch the sun set beyond Biscayne Bay as people pass by, both in Maseratis and on paddleboards. And thanks in part to Vardeu, it almost feels like Venice—even without the flooding. 1801 Purdy Ave., Miami Beach, 305-531-2228
photograph by gary james
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.