Passionate Eats 

An island of simple, sensual Italian pleasures beckons to diners in budding downtown Harbour Island.

'That's Amore" is a fitting name for a new Italian restaurant because it reminds the hard-chargers among us of all the sensual cues we miss while we're preoccupied with other matters.A luxurious yellow rose floats in a bowl on each table. Candlelight colors the ivory linen with a golden glow, and a whole wall of front windows frames a glamorously starry view of the downtown Tampa skyline, across the channel. Chef Gennaro De Liso's lavishly creamy cheese sauce conjures a smooth spell on the tongue as it slides down behind a sip of ruby wine.

The restaurant's distinctly foreign ambience slowly erodes those neurotic American eating habits that are sorry byproducts of modern living: Dining is slow, languorous and involves interaction with actual people, rather than the masturbatory act of stuffing hamburgers in one's mouth while driving and shouting into a cell phone.

The fare is southern Italian, hearty, expensive, soul satisfying. I found the offerings somewhat uneven; some of the dishes seemed almost too plain, too peasant-simple, but there were standouts, too. And the place was just so relaxed, so homey and convenient, set along an attractive promenade on Harbour Island, facing a downtown that in five years might once again be alive with urbanites if new residential housing on the drawing boards becomes a reality. That's partly what drew the restaurant's owners here in the first place; they're betting on a vital downtown.

"We chose Tampa because it's like Naples -- it has a great view, you can see all of downtown, and because it's an upscale community," explained Ciro Mancini, a native of Naples, Italy, who co-owns the restaurant with Nicola Romano, of Rome. Speaking through an interpreter, he noted that while the 150-seat restaurant has been open only a couple of months, it has already won a place among its patrons: "They say it's cozy; people feel like they're in their own home."

Among the diners were couples, families and groups of friends, who, when the weather cools, probably would enjoy sitting outside on the patio, yet another Italian passion that we would do well to imitate. Dining al fresco gives the meal an entirely different dimension that, until recently, has gone largely unappreciated in the U.S. -- it reinforces the tie between eater and natural world, the source of all sustenance.

Start with drinks or a bottle of wine. I chose a Knotty Vine Zinfandel from the Rodney Strong wineries ($9/glass), and used it to wash down homemade bread spread with pecorino -- a tangy cheese made from sheep's milk. The Martini Tester was unimpressed with his too-tame martini ($10) but got over his disappointment with the help of a fragrant appetizer, a dish of wonderfully fresh, steamed baby clams, their shells glistening upright like hands in prayer.

We also tried an escargot appetizer ($9.95), snails sauteed with garlic butter, lemon and white wine, but it could have used a lightning bolt of additional garlic and lemon flavor to wake it up.

I liked the mixed salad ($7.95), a cheery confetti of arugula, tomatoes, endive and peppers, bathed in a simple oil and vinegar dressing. It went nicely with the wine and the bread, aided by the mellow, low buzz of conversation and occasional bursts of musical laughter from other tables.

Friends sitting nearby recommended Antipasto Gasparilla ($13.95), a high-quality prosciutto from Parma served with cantaloupe and fresh mozzarella. It reminded me of a line in the popular bestseller Under the Tuscan Sun that provided the slang term for a particularly fine-textured, round cantaloupe: "nun's tits."

The evening's best dish was Bacio Bayshore ($24.95), pasta shaped into bite-size "kisses," sort of an edible schmooch, stuffed with cheese and lathered with a rich, creamy, splendid sauce. It was so fabulous we were knocked out.

Another pasta dish, ravioli alla Aragosta ($24.95), featured tender ravioli stuffed with an assertive lobster filling and a light tomato sauce that evoked fragrant wisps of fennel, basil and lavender.

My entrée was grouper Livornese ($28.95). The filleted fish was flavored with a so-so white wine sauce, but it was pretty on a big plate with fresh tomato, black olives and onions. It is one of those dishes that tastes exotic but is essentially simple to make; Its price seemed a little high, considering that a relatively good cook could duplicate it at home without much difficulty.

I was glad to see my favorite dessert, profiterol ($8.95), on the menu -- cream puff pastry stuffed with ice cream, whipped or chantilly cream, or pudding. However, its execution proved less than stellar, as the pastry was limp and the milk chocolate sauce needed more Wham. Also, it was accompanied by a sorry version of cappuccino ($2.95) that was mostly steamed milk and needed a big shot of hot, strong coffee.

Still, I would recommend That's Amore, as in my mind, it is a harbinger of many fine eateries to come in what is now, with a few notable exceptions, a Dining Dead Zone.

Food Editor Sara Kennedy dines anonymously, and Weekly Planet pays for her meals. She can be reached at sara.kennedy@weeklyplanet.com or 813-248-8888 ext. 116.

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