Italian intrigue at Massimo’s 

A fine-dining hideaway in a Palm Harbor shopping plaza.

Massimo’s is a conundrum. The phrase “eclectic fine dining” intrigued me, so I made a reservation. But as I searched the foodie sites that proliferate on the web, Massimo’s was strangely underrepresented. How, I wondered, could a restaurant like this one have stayed under the foodie radar?

Perhaps the answer is location — a sterile Palm Harbor shopping plaza in the shadow of an Outback Steakhouse. But once you cross over its threshold, you are in another world — the warm embrace of a charming, luxe Italian restaurant that might just as easily be nestled in the rolling hills of Tuscany. The crisp white tablecloths balance the dark wood and the low, romantic lighting casts a glow on the award-winning wine collection.

Chef Massimo Patano’s appetizers have a lot going on. Rosy pan-seared duck breast crunches with a pistachio crust. Unexpected slivers of sweet dried apricots peek out through the lush sauce of Champagne and brie mousse; diagonal slices of tiny perfectly roasted asparagus complete the plate. The result is delicious, even if the duck ultimately plays a supporting role.

A serpentine trail of balsamic reduction is the base for a crispy crab cake bound with ricotta. Fried artichokes and lime-arugula salsa are welcome accompaniments. The kicker is a creamy guacamole spiked with searing Scotch bonnet (read SUPER-hot) sun-dried tomato oil that really makes your taste buds stand at attention. And just to prove that you can’t have too much of a good thing, lumps of loose, succulent crabmeat provide a freestyle garnish to their ricotta-bound siblings.

The lobster bisque is a crustacean-filled broth that keeps the cream in balance. The result is a light soup with subtle hints of Sherry and flecks of lobster meat scattered like mini-icebergs around the bowl.

The entrees don’t seem so much “eclectic fine dining” as new wave Italian. Tender sautéed veal scallopini is blanketed in a glistening wild mushroom, shallot and Cognac cream with a white truffle oil drizzle. Seared, green tea-crusted Ahi tuna is perfectly paired with marinated crystallized ginger. Both the veal and the tuna share a common garnish of mind-bogglingly farm-fresh baby vegetables. Roasted diminutive carrots and asparagus join tiny blanched and caramelized, buttery bok choy whose unexpected flavors sing — just like the produce of the Italian countryside.

Risotto, though a seemingly simple dish, requires laser-like focus on every detail to avoid the extremes of chalkiness or goo. In the hands of a master like Massimo, risotto is sigh-inducing; creamy, yet al dente. He flecks his mushroom and black truffle version with Italian parsley and tops it with a soft burrata garnish. Our table is moaning…

Most of Massimo’s food is luscious. His sauces have their roots in classic French technique with an inventive Italian twist. That said, his use of Cognac, Sherry and truffle oil is subtle — almost to a fault, for my taste. I’d like a little more gusto — à la the crab cake appetizer.

The desserts are good, but don’t shine quite as brightly as the savory dishes. Classic tiramisu is light and creamy with ladyfingers that retain their shape without getting soggy but, as with the entrée sauces, there’s no hint of the rum or Marsala that makes zabaglione zing. The twin warm chocolate and apple strudels are flavorful, but while the first is crisp, the second is slightly soggy. That can’t be said of the brown sugar phyllo basket, which is crisp and crackling. The chocolate banana mousse that it holds is rich and dense, rather than airy; its texture is more like a flourless torte, but the touch of Kahlúa strikes me as a misstep.

The fine wine inventory is impressive, reflected in the fact that the restaurant has received Wine Spectator’s very competitive Best Award of Excellence (only nine other restaurants in the Bay area have this award). But the wines by the glass are strangely limited — as was our server’s wine knowledge. And the stemware, while serviceable, shouldn’t be one size fits all. Perhaps if we had ordered a bottle of boutique Napa cabernet (or one of the other three- and four-figure bottles on the list, well outside our budget), the appropriate glasses would appear. I certainly hope so.

As both chef and sommelier, Massimo Patano takes time to escape his kitchen and works the room with low-keyed, self-effacing charm. But Massimo himself may be the key to why his restaurant has such a relatively low profile: When he’s out of town, the place closes.

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