Almost every dish at Bellarte, which brings adventure and imagination to Italian cooking, is at least two steps above most competitors.
By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 31, 2002
My first taste of Bellarte, a bright flash of post-modern Italian in a brand new office park hotel for road warriors, was something I didn't expect -- and didn't expect to like.
It was an olive, a green olive as green and bright as a fresh fig, and offered in a small bowl as a complimentary taste to our table and others on that slow night. Pretty doesn't count with me on olives; I hate 'em in all colors, although I can spot good ones by sniff and quick (painful) bites.
Not these oliva d'acqua, olives cured in salt water, an old and rare peasant custom in parts of Apulia that preserves an olive as a fresh, tender fruit. "They are from my village, near Cerignola," a waiter volunteered, beaming.
I bit. It was refreshing, no more offensive than a cucumber and almost sweet, an olive I could enjoy.
Since then, I've only encountered more conventional olives, but they are serious olives, dusky brown, in muddy oil, sometimes with branch attached. In other words, the best kind I don't like, but they remind me that Bellarte knows the cardinal virtues of Italian cooking and respects quality ingredients.
Remember that because initially you may be distracted by the shock of the new here. If you have any sense of adventure, you're going to try something like tuna osso bucco. That looks like veal shank with a chunk of marrow in the middle, but it's really a thick tuna steak seared rare with a giant scallop where the bone would be. Underneath is a creamy risotto with sweet peas and a fingerlicking demi glace made with a polished Barbera.
That's not on the menu of most Milanese. It comes straight from the wit of Ralph Sitero, who opened Bernini, the first uptown Italian restaurant here (and still one of Ybor's sexiest), and banged the pots in the ambitious Ashley Street Grille at Tampa's Radisson Riverwalk.
At the Radisson, he's executive chef of his own place, running all day from a buffet breakfast through business lunches to deal-closing dinners, and there's no stinting on imagination or taste.
The "osso bucco" trick is easy compared to his "seafood tiramisu." If it was a joke a decade ago in Sleepless in Seattle, tiramisu's no laughing matter here. Sitero translates the layered dessert into a stack of luxurious textures and flavors: a souffle of crabmeat and lobster, house-made "ladyfingers" of cornmeal, on crunchy rice with wicked Hollandaise and sprinkles of porcini dust to mimic the dusting of cocoa on the dessert. Whew. And it's good eating too.
Spaghetti and meatballs? Yes, except the bombolini are balls of crabmeat with a very delicate and crisp crust.
I expected such cleverness. What surprised and pleased as much was the fact that traditional dishes get respectful treatment and the best ingredients. The linguini boasts very fresh clams in the shell; tomato sauces are made with San Marzano (the best Italian tomatoes); cured bresaolo beef is rolled up with Parmesan and fresh arugula.
You'll see the same care on the non-Italian side. Steaks are certified Angus and treated to the barbera demi glaze, wild mushrooms, a Bearnaise of brandy peppercorn, better choices than any pure steakhouse I've seen, as well as a steak Florentine. Pork gets fennel and rosemary and duck gets a sauce of blood oranges and cannelloni stuffed with butternut squash.
It doesn't all work for me. Lobster mashed potatoes sound more indulgent than they taste; the baby vegetables on the mixed grill had more taste and life than the salmon and grouper; and fritto misto, godparent of all fried calamari and one of the best and simplest Italian dishes, was too soft, dull and limited to calamari and whitefish. The fritto of my dreams, and anyone's trip to Venice, has not been reproduced here yet.
Still, almost every course and detail is two steps above most competitors, Italian and otherwise. Salads, whether the house with asparagus, artichokes and goat cheese or the greens with Gorgonzola and grilled fresh pear, are first rate. The scallops stuffed with baby clams and couscous are a great showoff appetizer; desserts range from must-have sorbettos frozen in the lemon shell and imported pistachio gelato to a fine rendition of panna cotta and, yes, tiramisu. Wines are well chosen, bread is crusty and espresso properly made (although, as usual, it is not hot enough).
It all comes in a razzle dazzle package mixing Sienna, Milan and local art while providing nooks and private areas for corporate or intimate dining. Meals come with the polished service of a cosmopolitan with a strong Italian accent. Not just my proud olive-loving waiter; the maitre d' eagerly told tales of a childhood clamming in the Venetian lagoon (while other waiters simply talked too much).
No question that Bellarte can be a modern take on Italy -- or that the restaurant is corporate kin to the neighborhood's first trendy spot, the Grill at Feather Sound. And there's no concealing that dining here can be expensive, expense account expensive.
But from the top of this Sunbelt Tuscan tower you can see the castles of Raymond James, Templeton, Home Shopping and new-economy firms hungry for sophisticated dining.
The rest of us, starved for smart contemporary cooking and especially for a fresh taste of Italian, as clever as tuna osso bucco and as traditional as 25-year-old balsamic, will also happily pay the price.
HOURS: Breakfast, 6:30 to 10:30 a.m.; lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m.
CREDIT CARDS: Most
DETAILS: Full bar; smoking in bar only
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Good
PRICES: Breakfast, $10.95; weekend brunch, $15.95; lunch, $6 to $16; dinner, $10 to $32