Little Pepperoni: Indian restaurant, Italian accent 

A surprising pairing in Pinellas.

Little Pepperoni is a stealth restaurant. Drive by and you'll see a typical neighborhood Italian joint, with a delivery car parked alongside and folks strolling out, pizza boxes in hand. Step inside and it'll likely be empty, most of the lasagna and sub business meant for takeout consumption. Glance at the menu and your first impressions will be confirmed. Even the name seems to leave little doubt about the nature of this St. Pete restaurant.

But rip off the mask, pierce the veil, or dig deep beneath the surface and you'll find curry and ghee, naan and samosas. Little Pepperoni is an Indian restaurant in disguise. Not only that, it's one of the best inexpensive Indian restaurants in this part of Pinellas.

Like Janus the Roman god or Batman's Harvey Dent, Little Pepperoni sports two faces that seem diametrically opposed, or at least very dissimilar, one churning out standard $5 pizza, the other blending the intricate spice palette of the sub-continent into complex but affordable entrees. There's little crossover — this isn't fusion cooking — just two disparate cuisines present on the same menu.

The owner is of Sri Lankan descent, but studied cuisine in Italy. His family has a string of restaurants like Little Pepperoni overseas, his the first in the States. And here, the formula works.

The majority of the menu is standard Americanized Italian, just the basics with little fuss. Little Pepperoni's pizza is reminiscent of the better chain places, the crust thicker than NY-style, the toppings dominated by a blanket of cheese. It's also one of the few areas where cultures mix, resulting in a pie sauced with green curry and topped by chicken and peppers. Pasta gets an Indian treatment as well, with penne tossed in the same ingredients used on that pizza.

More traditional Italian dishes are executed well beyond what you'd expect from a place where entrees rarely break the $10 mark. Canneloni is stuffed with fresh spinach and tender chicken and doused in a rich cream sauce punctuated by sharp asiago; the chicken parmesan is fried crisp and juicy, with a bright tomato sauce and blanket of mozzarella; lasagna is dense and filling, with just enough ricotta to lighten the layers of meat and cheese a touch.

Although the Italian is tasty and inexpensive, Little Pepperoni's Indian fare is by far the better bargain. The restaurant's vindaloo has a touch of tart vinegar to tie together the aromatic and powerful spices, hot enough to bring out the brow sweat without forcing you to reach for a glass. In the tikka masala, tomato ties everything together into a sweet and savory whole. In both dishes, the chicken is well overcooked, but the sauce and spice help the dry hunks get by.

The restaurant's samosas are deep-fried pockets loaded with creamy chicken or chopped veggies, crisp and redolent of Indian curry. Little Pepperoni's naan — the basic flatbread served with every dish — is a disappointment, however, thin but dense and slightly undercooked.

Best of the Indian offerings is Little Pepperoni's biryani, the fried rice dish of India. Packed with cashews, raisins, veggies and chickpeas (plus your meat of choice), the massive plate of rice is seasoned with curry but still manages to be light and fluffy, easily a match for any Indian spot in the county.

No matter which cultural cuisine you decide to order, you might want to go with the flow and order take-out or delivery. The interior of Little Pepperoni is far from congenial, decorated with the usual framed prints and stacks of newly constructed pizza boxes waiting to be filled. And the bathroom is well worth avoiding.

Play to Little Pepperoni's strengths. In a group that can't decide what kind of food they want, or have kids who eat little more than pizza and mac and cheese? Grab the menu and you'll find something for almost everyone, brought to your door or carried home in your car, for little more than a deeper look at a seemingly ordinary Italian restaurant and around $10 a person.

little pepperoni, restaurant review, italian, indian, brian ries, food, st. petersburg, pizza, naan, biryani, chicken parmesan, take out

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