Feb. 3—José Mendín never could let go of Pubbelly.
Not the location, anyway. Even after the fall of 2019 when he closed the “Asian gastropub” that sparked new life in Sunset Harbour, he kept the lease and hinted a new concept could take its place. And now it has.
Mendín, nominated for five-straight James Beard awards for his work at the original Miami Beach restaurant, will open a new Italian restaurant, Casa Isola, at the location of his first culinary playground. He joins forces with his Sunset Harbour neighbor, chef Santo Agnello, the Brooklyn-born pizzaiolo behind one of Miami’s best pizza spots, Lucali, an offshoot itself of the Brooklyn original. The new restaurant is set to open Feb. 10.
“I’m the first to say, ‘Not another Italian restaurant,’ but this is our version of it and it won’t be froufrou Italian,” Mendín joked. “When you cook someone else’s cuisine, you want to be very careful that you’re paying respect to that culture.”
The original Pubbelly was a restaurant that defied classification. The Puerto Rican-born Mendín often mixed Asian, Latin and Italian flavors. One of his most popular dishes at Pubbelly, which remained on the menu for years, was a duck and pumpkin ravioli that hinted at Mendín’s ability with pasta. Mendín was also a founding partner at the excellent South Beach Italian spot Macchialina which siblings Michael and Jacqueline Pirolo now own and run.
But Mendín admits he’s no specialist in Italian cuisine, which is why teamed with a proven expert for Casa Isola.
At Lucali, Agnello replicated the Brooklyn spot by Mark Iacono, which balanced a perfectly crisp crust and chewy interior with top, imported ingredients (albeit at a eyebrow-raising price).
The two island-born chefs — Mendín from Puerto Rico, Agnello from Sicily — team together at Isola (Italian for island) to offer a full menu of Italian and Italian-American flavors. The two started working together in late 2019, when Agnello ran Mendín’s food truck, Pie Father, at The Wharf in Fort Lauderdale and later became his head chef at his restaurant there, Rivertail.
“I’ve been learning a lot from Santo and he learns from me,” Mendín said.
The two spent the pandemic collaborating on the menu. Here Mendín juxtaposes flavors, as he did at Pubbelly, from a Milanesa carpaccio with wagyu beef, aged balsamic and black truffle to a rabbit Bolognese pappardelle. Agnello promised hearty dishes like a veal parmigiana. The menu progresses from antipasti to macaroni, secondi and finishes with desserts such as tiramisu or a rotating daily cannoli.
Mendín, a founding partner of Pubbelly Sushi and La Placita Puerto Rican restaurant in Miami’s MiMo District, said he originally tried to sub-lease the former Pubbelly space. But interests flooding Miami from New York in the last year, during the pandemic, wanted to pay cut-rate rent. One wanted Mendín to pick up half of the rent and that was “the final straw,” he said.
So he partnered with Agnello for the chef’s first foray into a restaurant where he is a partner.
Together they redecorated the space into a bright, white-tile dining room, keeping the original restaurant’s open kitchen.
“The place has a lot of sentimental value for me. It’s like your first car or your first girlfriend,” Mendín said. “I didn’t just want to let it go.”
Opening Feb. 10 at 1418 20th St., Miami Beach. Casaisolamiami.com