Weekend at Bernini 

Don’t miss Bernini of Ybor’s historic digs, pleasing Italian dishes, and wood-fired pizzas.

Bernini’s in Ybor City reminds you of just how lucky we are to have this historic neighborhood at the heart of Tampa Bay. It’s not just the restaurant’s historic façade or the high ceilings with the two-tiered milk glass chandeliers. Sitting outside on a late summer evening, the atmosphere of Seventh Avenue fills your senses to overflowing. And even if you’d skip the cigar smoke wafting down the street given a choice, you might find yourself thinking what a table mate voiced aloud: “I feel like I’m on vacation.”

The friendly servers reinforce this feeling with warm bread and whipped herb butter, but I miss olive oil for dipping. Our table approaches the appetizer selections with glee. They feature the usual suspects of bruschetta and calamari, plus beef Carpaccio, sausage with peppers and an eggplant dish named after executive chef Paul Bonanno.

We opt for the grilled lollipop lamb chops; this is a good choice. The three lamb lollis are succulent and perfectly cooked. The roasted red pepper hummus that serves as a base for the chops is a nice accompaniment. Basil pesto is also listed on the menu as part of this dish, but seems absent. It doesn’t matter because the lamb is the star of the show and it is simply delicious.

Zuppa del giorno is a fresh soup made daily; for our visit, it’s Manhattan clam chowder, which substitutes tomatoes for the dairy in the New England variety. Bernini’s version is disappointing. The heady aromas of intermixed clams and bacon chunks are absent, overpowered by a broth that reminds me on the palate of Campbell’s vegetable soup. At least on this day, the soup is entirely forgettable.

The good news is that the pear and arugula salad is terrific — and huge. Fresh chunks of spicy Bartlett pears poached in port wine simple syrup surround a tall mound of peppery arugula tossed with Champagne-cherry vinaigrette. Add toasted almonds and tangy goat cheese and there are smiles all around. It’s big enough for a meal.

Bernini offers a baker’s dozen of wood-fired pizzas. The topping combos are imaginative and whole-wheat dough is available upon request.

Pizza is like sex — most everyone really likes it, but there are divergent opinions about what makes it good. So let me disclose my predilections; it’s thin crust Neapolitan all the way. Pizza is all about balancing the dough to toppings ratio, allowing the pie to cook quickly and evenly. This produces a combination of crispy and chewy textures. A well-cooked wood oven pizza has scorched blisters on the bottom of the crust. We opt for wild mushrooms with goat cheese, mozzarella, shaved pecorino and some basil pesto. It’s a wonderful combo, although it verges on too much cheese (yes, this is possible), as the center is a bit soft. However, this is top-notch pizza and I will be back. Pizza this good requires exploration.

The pappardelle Bolognese is delicate, with a base of veal and pork, plus carrots, onions, plum tomatoes, and pancetta with “a splash of red wine.” Then, there’s a mascarpone cheese finish. The homemade wide egg noodles are just past “al dente” to my taste, and the sauce lacks punch. Perhaps it’s the mascarpone, or a deliberate choice to aim for American palates that live in the world of jarred ragu, but the sweet finish kills the acidity of the tomatoes and wine that bring the sauce alive. It’s one-dimensional.

The same cannot be said for the almond crusted red snapper. It’s fresh and juicy and served atop perfectly grilled asparagus, which sit on a lightly seasoned mushroom risotto. This might be considered bland if it were not for an unexpected amaretto-brown butter sauce that ties it all together. The scrumptious combination of flavors and textures is a welcome surprise even if the market price makes this Bernini’s most expensive entrée at $36.

When it’s time to feed your sweet tooth, Bernini’s offers popular favorites to anchor the dessert menu. There’s key lime pie, crème brûlée, flourless chocolate cake, and tiramisu.

But you’d be crazy not to step away from these dessert stalwarts and indulge in the old family recipe that is “Aunt Cookie’s” cassata cake. Thin slices of golden pound cake are layered with anise-tinged ricotta and whipped cream studded with chocolate chips and cherries. It’s delectable, large enough to share, and sure to send you out into the summer night with an enormous smile on your face.

NEXT WEEK: Ivory Mandarin Bistro

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