Setting the Table
It’s a November night on Surfside Drive, and it looks like something is happening. The street is lit up. Cars fill every parking spot. Crowds move in and out of restaurants on the south side of the street.
In the spot once occupied by the long-running Charleston Café, then the short-lived Greek joint, Opa!, now sits an Italian restaurant named Malibu of Surfside. Yes, it serves Italian food. And yes the name is Malibu – it’s a long story.
A sign on the sidewalk reads, “Fine dining, without fine dining prices.” Through the doors, ’60s music plays. The room has a comforting mix of Italian restaurant and laid-back flair. The employees have a breezy vibe.
It’s a quaint spot, owned and operated by Giovanni Massari and Giuseppe Massari and their parents since August. The family is from Italy by way of New York. Giuseppe Massari runs the front of the house. Giovanni Massari is the chef. And their mother does some of the cooking, including all of the homemade desserts.
But let’s get some dinner in our guts first.
Down the Hatch
The menu is a who’s-who in Italian cuisine, mixing in seafood fare with mussels and baked clams and calamari. There are a couple of choices of soup – Lentil and Pasta Fagioli (both $6).
My wife and I look over the menu. Our son soon gives up because the pasta and entrée sections need a translator with words like Amatriciana and Pizzaolo and Oreganata. Good thing Giuseppe Massari is there. He walks us through the menu, asks us about our tastes and pinpoints selections he thinks fit us best.
My wife goes with the Penne Putanesca ($10), and when she adds shrimp, Giuseppe Massari tells us, “My brother butterflies the shrimp and sautés it. Growing up, me and him used to cook and eat like 40 of those a day.”
When I order the Pork Chop Pepper ($18), Giovanni Massari comes from the kitchen to tell me it’s one of his favorite dishes. My son isn’t so adventurous and decides on chicken strips and fries.
Here, your meal is an event. Everything is made to order, so you may wait before your entrees arrive. During our wait, we eat bread glazed with olive oil and spices. We talk. Giuseppe Massari comes by and tells us about family recipes and their legacy of restaurateurs. My wife drinks her Corona. I drink my Heineken. My son slurps downs two cups of orange Fanta.
They bring out an order of Fried Cappellini Cakes for us to sample on the house. They look like crab cakes, but the insides are filled with angel hair pasta, stuck together by ricotta and parmigiana cheese ($7). “This is genius,” my wife says. “It’s like portable pasta.”
When our entrees hit the table, the smell is divine. The plates are divided with bowls filled with grated Parmigiana cheese. Garlic white wine and cherry pepper sauce smothers my Pork Chop Pepper. Wild mushrooms and cherry peppers are scattered across the chop. I also have a side of pasta topped with the same sauce. One bite is spiced with the cherry pepper, the next cuts mild from the mushroom.
My wife’s Penne Putanesca is painted with plum red tomato sauce, fat with shrimp and flavored with anchovies, black olives, onions and capers. The olives are prevalent and make for a distinctive taste against the shrimp.
Even my son’s chicken strips are made from tender chicken cutlet usually used for the Chicken Parmigiana.
The food isn’t a meal as much as an experience.
We’re compelled to order desserts made by the Massaris’ mama – a brownie complete with Cannoli cream center, topped with zigzags of chocolate and caramel. We also get a cheesecake loaded with fresh strawberries, drizzled with chocolate. Whip cream tops all of it. The cheesecake is smooth and melts against my tongue – one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
We dropped $70 on dinner, but we were stuffed, satisfied and carried away lunch. My wife would return for the portable pasta alone.
Malibu also serve lunches. Not only can you get various salads and soups, you can also get a Panini stuffed with just about anything ($8 - $11). And Chef Massari also makse a burger from shortrib, brisket and chuck ($9).
On Sundays, mama usually prepares some sort of featured gravy dish, be it spaghetti and meatballs or braciola.
In the coming months, they have plans to open up a smaller room upstairs for couples’ seating. And if you want to know why they named the place Malibu of Surfside, you’ll have to stop in and ask.