As a first-generation Italian-American, I have a love-hate relationship with restaurants serving food from the boot. While I am encouraged by sightings of extra virgin olive oil on the table and imported cheese, too many ristoranti force overpriced, mediocre items on us.
Thanks to the Food Network’s Giada, Mario et al, more and more of us are cooking handmade linguine with fresh clam sauce at home, and know better how much (or little) it all costs. And we know when it comes from the shell and not the can.
Kurt Cuccaro, co-owner of Mazzaro’s Italian Market, says it’s a challenge finding the perfect Italian restaurant, echoing frustrations about the gap between generic mom-and-pop blah and authentic pow — “places where you get three ounces of pasta for $28,” as he so aptly put it.
I asked Cuccaro how Mazzaro’s can afford to sell quality hot and cold items — especially the sandwiches on home-baked bread for only $5.99 — and he explained that he and his family operate their haven of Italian and foodie delights with a narrow profit margin, relying heavily on sales from the grocery retail. The place is always packed as a result.
Mazzaro’s is the exception. Too many prima donna proprietors cop a sense of entitlement about overcharging the public simply because they are not the Olive Garden. Yo, paesans: Underestimating your customers is mistake no. 1.
Another challenge: finding red sauce that comes close to our mothers’. Fortunately, several restaurants have upped the ante with vine-ripe tomatoes, fresh garlic and olive oil. I’ll order the sugo di pomodoro at La Terrazza and Laughing Cat in Ybor or Primi Urban Café in downtown St. Pete (and the restaurants in the list on this page), as they can be relied upon for good housemade tomato sauce.
Some modern restaurants borrow from trattoria traditions in their upscale fusion formulas. Pelagia Trattoria, located in International Plaza’s Renaissance Hotel, is probably the Bay area’s best example. Award-winning Executive Chef Andrew Basch has studied in Italy and creates delectable hybrids of authentic staples and ingenious newness. One appetizer, the PT BLT (Basil Not Tomato), stacks burrata cheese with sweet Florida green tomatoes, a dried prosciutto chip, box basil and a balsamic glaze ($5 Wednesday late afternoons/evenings during the Renaissance’s RLife music happy hour).
For true Italian ambiance, take cues from Bernini’s in Ybor, Pizzaiolo Bavaro in downtown Tampa and Pia’s in Gulfport, as each features aesthetically pleasing ambience, elegant simplicity and indoor-outdoor dining.
Cristino’s is my personal favorite. It’s the best of both worlds for authenticity and affordability. The warm yellow and brick eatery near downtown Clearwater beckons with blistery coal-fired pizza that’s topped with fresh mozz, sauce and toppings, and buonissimi pastas and ice cream. Pilar Barwood makes the gelato, ravioli and manicotti daily. Owners Lenny, Marco and Joe Cristino hail from Mola di Bari, Italy, and grew up in Brooklyn.
In Tampa, another authentic restaurant strives to close the gap between casual and upscale. Osteria Natalina has several great personal touches from personable owner Spartaco Giolito, from Rimini. He greets customers warmly, explains the specials and serves singular items such as a char-grilled calamari salad ($8.50), and insalata with fresh fennel and arugula ($8.50). The star of his menu: strozzapreti pasta ($23). Translated as “The Priest Choker” in Italiano, the Rimini specialty resembles an oversize, baggy ravioli pocket with tender veal or seafood tucked inside, draped with a savory-sweet blanket of a brown demi-glace, red or wine sauce. Times critic Laura Reiley includes strozzapretti in her “40 dishes worth relishing.” Osteria Natalina has some room to improve, though, with its seafood entrees, portions and price points.
I’ve mentioned just some of the most reliable, authentic (as in: operated by native Italians) and relatively affordable places to eat good Italian food in the Bay area. Now check out more eateries that consistently deliver quality fare in my Big Italian 20 list.
I Venti Grandi: Garisto’s big Italian 20
Here’s a list (in alphabetical order) of some of the best and most authentic Italian eateries in Tampa Bay.
Bernini. 1702 E. Seventh Ave.,Ybor City, berniniofybor.com. Mid-to-upscale with a mix of authentic and fusion.
Café Cibo. 8697 Fourth St. N, St Petersburg, cafecibo.com. Quality immigrant Italian cuisine, mid-level price range, great crab ragu.
Caffé Paradiso. 4205 S. MacDill Ave., 813-835-6622. Mid-to-upscale, authentic; “world’s best lasagna.”
Casanova. 811 Cleveland St., Clearwater, 727-733-5449, restaurantcasanova.com. Authentic, affordably priced.
Cesare’s on the Beach. 794 S. Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater Beach, 727-449-8797, cesareatthebeach.com.
Cristino’s Coal Oven Pizza. 1101 S. Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater, 727-443-4900, cristinospizzeria.com.
Donatello. 232 N. Dale Mabry, Tampa, 813-875-6660. Upscale, longtime Tampa favorite, authentic Italian cuisine.
The Laughing Cat. 1811 N. 15th St., Tampa, 813-241-2998, thelaughingcat.com.
Lauro Ristorante. 3915 Henderson Blvd., Tampa, 813-281-2100, lauroristorante.com. Authentic, longtime Tampa tradition, delicious antipasti.
Mazzaro’s Italian Market. 2909 22nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg, 727-321-2400, mazzarosmarket.com. Gourmet deli and grocery, affordable sandwiches, coffee roasted on the premises, bakery, wine shop, artisanal cheeses and extensive wine shop.
Osteria Natalina. 3215 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa, 813-831-1210, osterianatalina.com.
Paci’s Pizza. 2307 N. Dale Mabry, Tampa, 813-253-2973, pacispizza.com. Excellent New York Italian pies.
Pelagia Trattoria. 4200 Jim Walter Blvd., Tampa, 813-313-3235, pelagiatrattoria.com.
Pia’s Trattoria. 3054 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport, 727-327-2190, piastrattoria.com. Authentic, upper mid-level price range, picturesque and cozy ambience.
Pizzaiolo Bavaro. 514 N. Franklin St., Tampa, 813-868-4440, pizzaiolobavaro.org.
Primi Urban Café. 27 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg, 727-895-4909, primiurbancafe.com. Authentic, mid-price range, great gnocchi.
La Terrazza. 1727 E. Seventh Ave., Ybor City, 813-248-1326, laterrazzayborcity.com.
La Trattoria Da Gaetano. 2152 Main St., Dunedin, Coastal Shopping Center, 727-733-5664. Try the seafood combo with pink amaretto sauce.
Trattoria Pasquale. 4334 S. Manhattan Ave., Tampa, 813-831-9572. Authentic fare from esteemed caterer Luigi Cavallaro.
Wood Fired Pizza and Nightlife. 2822 E. Bearss Ave., Tampa, 813-341-2900; 344 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg, 727-282-1888, wood-firedpizza.com. Authentic with a mix of fusion, somewhat upscale and geared to young, lively clientele.
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