Anyone who reads this space weekly knows that I'm a man who can quibble. I pick nits. I cast the light of day on hidden inconsistencies and minor failures. It's part of the job.
And I'll do just that when talking about Viaggio, one of the two restaurants tucked into the expansive Venue club and dining complex on Ulmerton Road near Feather Sound in St. Petersburg. But it's going to be difficult.
I'll mention that the restaurant bills itself as a tapas joint, but relies on the same old trope of appetizers and entrées. Check. And the menu is a tad bland, featuring tried-and-true dishes that have been ubiquitous in Bay area fine dining for seemingly forever. Check. That red-pepper feta dip served with the bread takes some getting used to. Check. Oh, yeah, the tables are also a bit close to the fixed bench seating for a stocky gentlemen such as myself. Check.
Now that I've gotten past those piddling little details, I can now declare that Viaggio is one of the most competent, consistent and tasty restaurants to emerge in the Bay area in quite some time.
Viaggio's home is The Venue, crouched almost under the I-275 overpass on strip-mall-laden Ulmerton. Walk in the front door and you'll feel like you've entered a little piece of transplanted Vegas, the space set up like a casino complex with bars, clubs and dining spots tucked into every corner, designed to the nines and more high-roller than anything else in Pinellas.
Two interior bars, a giant courtyard patio and a cozy little Japanese joint are scattered around the bottom floor. Upstairs is an opulent club that's only open on Friday and Saturday nights, featuring little touches like a calm VIP lounge that's invite-only with its own private entrance, a "champagne pit" set off the main floor, two outdoor decks, multiple secluded nooks and a couple of glassed-in private rooms that cost $1,200 to rent for the night. Pricey, but that does include four bottles of liquor.
Viaggio is on the bottom floor, separated from the rest of the club scene by glass walls that almost, but not quite, drown out the retro-'90s pop music currently pumped by The Venue's sound system. Considering the clientele, maybe it's not so odd. There are a few beautiful people scattered through the complex, but most of the crowd are the type of 30s-50s folk you'd expect in a strip mall on Ulmerton, making the Annie Lennox and Hootie soundtrack appropriate.
Although not really tapas -- there are too many entrees for that -- and not nearly as Mediterranean as the faux-frescos decorating the walls and ceiling suggest, there is just enough interesting stuff to save the menu from being as dated as the music. Not a lot of imagination, really, just an occasional subtle twist that adds oomph to otherwise classic dishes.
Most of the twists are subtle -- like giant, succulent shrimp curled around small nuggets of feta and dressed with butter and garlic ($13). Cheese and shellfish is always a tricky combination, but here the restrained amount of feta adds a bright and briny punch to cut through the rich sauce.
Viaggio's kitchen, headlined by former Armani's cook Rob Uzzillia, really shines with its execution of the classics. Hunks of diced beef tenderloin are blended with mustard and capers to form a tiny tower of tartare ($11), surrounded by the usual fixings of hardboiled quail egg, red onion and more capers. Simple logs of yucca are perfectly fried ($6), crisp on the outside and ethereally fluffy on the inside, with a little canister of typical chimichurri for dipping.
Kobe beef sliders ($12) are good enough to put a little scare into nearby Café Ponte. Set on sections of substantial baguette, the patties run with salty juice from the first bite, and sweet onion, sharp cheddar and a hint of truffled greens accent the beef without taking over the show.
Although grouper is the official fish of the Gulf Coast, it tends to be a bland piece of flesh rarely suited for fine dining. But by layering it with lump crab on top and drizzling with an exceptional buerre blanc ($26), Viaggio manages to make a masterpiece out of this sandwich staple. Instead of mere add-ons, the sides enhance the experience, with whipped potatoes so subtly laced with truffle oil that it's more a sensation than an actual flavor, the earthy richness seeping into everything on the plate.
Duck three ways ($26) -- featuring a giant sliced breast tinged with pink and covered in luscious skin, a confit leg that's so rich you can forgive the dry meat and a few thin slabs of foie gras -- is just as tasty. Even Mongolian barbecue ribs ($14), easily the most pedestrian item on the menu, show signs of excellence, the sweetly glazed pork a refined version of that neon-red standard of Chinese take-out.
Desserts are nearly as delicious and a tad more unusual. Key lime pie ($8) is served with a little dollop of fennel ice cream, although the fennel is so restrained it may not even be there. Bruléed bananas ($9) are paired with pancakes that are almost two inches thick and loaded with cinnamon and vanilla.
Viaggo is not the most innovative restaurant in the Bay area, but there are not a lot of nits to pick here. And for that I am genuinely grateful.
I love Saigon Deli on Dale Mabry next to La Quinta! It's awesome.
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Here is a link to the new shot menu! Go grab some! http://bit.ly/16A7PlK