For brothers Rino and Luciano Balzano, cooking is in their blood. They grew up near Naples, Italy, in a small town by the sea, and their grandparents and parents cooked professionally. "Between my mother and my father, they used to cook like angels," Luciano says. The love of food the brothers both discovered as children has since blossomed, taking them around the world. After culinary school, they spent a decade cooking on Italian cruise ships, then traveled to Florida where they opened restaurants including the much-lauded Il Porcino. Their cooking earned them the attention of the James Beard Foundation, as well as that of Hollywood stars including Demi Moore and Robert De Niro, who ended up hiring the pair several times. Pictures of their past successes hang in their office—but today, they're looking forward with La Canzone Ristorante & Lounge, a waterfront eatery whose floor-to-ceiling windows let diners drink in stunning views of the bay.
As beautiful as the views are, it's the food people come for. "Our Italian food is actually real, authentic Italian food," Luciano says, noting many places make the same claim but fail to deliver. The seafood dishes, including what he proudly claims is "the best calamari in town," pay tribute to their coastal childhood, and the homemade pastas include ricotta gnocchi and fresh fettuccine with pork veal. Braised short ribs in a chianti-infused sauce, meanwhile, cook for five hours and arrive so tender that they fall apart at the mere mention of a Hank Williams ballad.
The restaurant is serious about its music, and though Luciano says he and his brothers "love to sing to the customers," they also bring in professionals—including live bands, as well as guest DJs who spin tunes in the lounge every Friday and Saturday from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. During weekdays, the tunes veer toward classic Italian, mirroring the vision Rino and Luciano have for La Canzone. "We tried to put together something nice and comfortable and very much Italian," Luciano says.
Before owner François Delfosse and his wife Lucia even set foot in George's in the Grove, they knew their way around the kitchen. Lucia had operated three restaurants in their native France, and upon taking over the Coconut Grove hot spot, they opted to keep the space as they found it on the theory that you shouldn't mess with success. The previous owner had placed Buddha statues all around to counterbalance his excitable personality. Now the statues remain to complement the soothing zen music that plays in the background and only stops when birthday celebrations transform the relaxed lounge into a dark nightclub. In this latter scene, patrons show off dance moves while Top 40 hits play and the birthday diner chows down on a sparkler-accented dessert.
A long glass pane stretches across one side of the dining room, giving patrons a look at chefs hard at work arranging French cuisine. François and Lucia's menu spotlights delicate dishes such as steamed mussels with white wine, garlic, and shallots, and rich morel-mushroom risotto with shaved foie gras and truffle oil. Hearty steak tartare—very rare meat with capers, onions, and spices—or lamb shank braised for three hours delight palates and imbue patrons with the strength to climb the Arc de Triomphe. As diners sip wine, they admire paintings along a café au lait-colored wall or take in sunlight on a sidewalk patio.
For John Offerdahl, the aroma of meat sizzling on the grill stirs memories of his family's barbecues in rural Wisconsin. Even when John grew up and became a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins, he couldn't escape that enticing smell—it would waft into the stadium from fans tailgating outside and the mascots who secretly stuffed their costumes with cheeseburgers. So it was only natural that, after retiring from football, John would once again find himself at the grill when he and his wife Lynn opened Offerdahl's Cafe Grill in 2000. The couple were no strangers to the restaurant business; they had previously owned a chain of bagel shops. This venture, however, would prove more ambitious—they devised menus of classic American cuisine that could be served up fast for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a focus on fresh-grilled fare.
Today, Offerdahl's Cafe Grill has expanded to seven locations, but its flavorful, no-frills meals remain the same. "Johnny O's Famous Bagels" still take the starring roles during breakfast, waking diners up with flavors like cinnamon crumb, pumpernickel, and fruit-and-nut. But once breakfast turns to lunch and dinner, the grill takes over. Chefs swiftly cook up steak, chicken, and salmon, serving the proteins over rice, pasta, or salad with homemade dressings. They also grill chicken sandwiches and burgers, in a nod to the café's backyard barbecue roots.
Sweetness Bake Shop & Cafe's cupcake list is overwhelming in the best possible way. The treats are made from scratch everyday, the buttercream a slight yellow due to the use of real butter, and the vanilla bean cake rich with Nielsen Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla. But the careful, delicious craftsmanship aside, the sheer number of cupcake options on the menu is enough to floor even the most mild of cupcake enthusiasts. The menu divides into several categories. These include house flavors, such as red velvet, and classic flavors such as maple bacon. Then there are even more whimsical categories such as "candy jar", which includes Twix- and Snickers-flavored cupcakes, "top shelf", which has mojito and tequila sunrise cakes, and "global a go-go" which includes flavors such as tiramisu and churro con chocolate but excludes the flavor of passport stamp.
But Sweetness doesn't stop there. Their menu expands to cover more treats such as ice cream, cake balls and donuts, and cakes. They also cater to the non-sweet tooth with sandwiches and salads for lunch and eggs and pancakes for brunch.
When The Melting Pot originally opened in 1975 just outside Orlando, the location was cozy and quaint, but diners had only three options: swiss-cheese fondue, beef fondue, or chocolate fondue. However, as the restaurant grew in popularity, so did its menu selection and atmosphere. The restaurant first expanded four years later under the leadership of a Melting Pot waiter and enterprising college student named Mark Johnston, who teamed up with his brothers Mike and Bob to open a new outpost in Tallahassee. This location grew in reputation to pave the way for future franchise expansion. Today, the company—now owned by the trio of siblings—reigns as the premier fondue, wine, and drink restaurant, stretching across North America with more than 140 restaurants linked by underground tunnels. The restaurant's menu has also ballooned, and patrons can now expect six varieties of hot dipping cheese paired with salads, meats, and molten chocolate.
On a given night, groups of foodies gather around tables to nosh on signature four-course meals, from cheese-fondue appetizers and various salads to steaks and seafood cooked in a choice of healthy broth or oil. Birthday revelers and couples can share decadent evenings at private tables, capping off meals with chocolate desserts that have defined The Melting Pot for decades.
From the moment you walk in, it's clear that Moonchine Asian Bistro is up to far more than pan-Asian eats. High-backed banquettes, jet-black walls, and soft red lighting all give rise to a clubby vibe; after 9 p.m., Moonchine turns into a full-on lounge with the help of dance DJs, bottle service, and even the occasional poetry performance or high-stakes geography bee. Miami New Times hailed Moonchine as "the gem of the Mimo District," advising guests to "arrive around 6 p.m., have a few rolls, and then head to the music lounge to warm up the dancing shoes."
Indoors and in the huge garden area, bartenders keep spirits high by mixing specialty cocktails and recommending bottles of sake from an extensive list. Which isn't to say that food's an afterthought—indeed, chefs have a lot on their plates, so to speak, juggling Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, and Korean culinary traditions. House-made kimchi mingles with creative sushi rolls, classic Thai and Indochinese dishes anchor one large corner of the menu, and there's even an almost-traditional bistro section: mussels, duck, and a "thai burger," each given light Asian accents of their own.