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[Times photos: Thomas M. Goethe]
DINE: One of the private rooms at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Tampa.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 26, 2002


Maggiano's Little Italy serves fresh, hefty portions but few dishes have the power to wow.

The secret of Maggiano's is not in the food on the table; it's on the walls. There are hundreds of vintage photos in gorgeous frames, big proud rectangles, little loved-one ovals and great long panoramas of confirmation classes, high school football teams, class trips and a hundred other occasions.

Tucked away near the front door is a more revealing figure, Occupancy: 712.

And many a night, it seems those 712 are all here. Good for Maggiano's but scary for independent restaurateurs.

Maggiano's takes the threat of big-box theme restaurants to the next step, what retailers call a "category killer," capable of rubbing out a dozen competitors.
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A serving of Zuppa di Pesce, which includes clams, mussels and fish, accompanied by toasted bread.

A year after Maggiano's arrival in this market and a decade after the chain was created in Chicago, its appeal is still working. A key strategy was to realize that Americans have not only turned over weeknight dining to restaurants and the pizza guy, we now subcontract party-giving and family celebrations.

A smart part of Maggiano's schtick is to serve family style (for those who don't remember, that's when everyone sat down at the same time and ate the same dishes). For $22 a person you can pass around platters of veal Milanese, roast chicken, eggplant mostachioli and veal cannelloni, plus salad, starters and desserts.

But even all that would not be enough without the setting, service and welcoming mood Maggiano sets. While it has the floor space for a bustling mob, the high ceilings give every party a feeling of extra space. Plus there are cozy crannies for smaller parties, a hallway of private rooms and the liveliest bar scene in town, with high-top seats. Sure it's crowded, but it's a crowd people want to be in.

Service is big-hearted too, in size and usually in spirit. Dozens of servers, hosts and bus help flood the floor like a zone defense. Any server could show up with your food, sometimes several at the same time, and that's when it feels somehow both indulgent and homey, like relatives parading out of the kitchen.

The best are sharp and empowered to redress mistakes on the floor: Sorry you had to wait, let me buy dessert. Occasionally they are knowledgeable and excited about the food; a few are too mechanical in working the crowds.

None are fast, suggesting that the kitchen is not so generously staffed. On my visits, virtually every course was preceded by a half-hour wait.

You could drum your fingers, but most groups find a glass of wine (I'd like more than Chianti and Tuscans by the glass), and Maggiano's magic works.

The food? That has last priority, like character development in a drama. It is clearly fresh, prepared on site and served in lusty portions, but rarely elicits a wow. Pasta menu is predictable -- except that the manicotti is folded taco style, rather than rolled. It is best with red sauce to match the checkered tablecloths.

Stick to spicier sauces, like the Joey Z's and the fiery arabiatta (the tomato vodka was as mushy as the gnocchi). I had the Alfredo on surprisingly good mushroom ravioli, but the sauce was as thin as if it had been made with skim milk; then oddly covered with thick layer of white cheeses welded on top.

I am glad that the chef has added more creative daily specials, such as grilled amberjack over spinach, which despite the Florida accent can embrace a more Italian sense of freshness than most of the top-dollar items. Veal picatta was dry and flavorless, the way the veal used to be in high school cafeterias. A big two-rib chop cooked Maggiano's style was recommended for its tasty crust but it had none, theoretically because it was ordered medium; ditto swordfish. A seafood stew was only mildly zesty, longer on mussels, clams and salmon than shrimp or scallops.

My few exciting bites came from a big bowl of mussels cooked with white beans, warm, substantial and a rare taste of old world Italian, a heaping platter of Chicken Vesuvio, with the potatoes that made Chicago famous, and a side order of fresh spinach cooked with lemon and olive oil.

The best eating came from the breads and desserts. The bread basket has improved to include a boule with a crust and light sour touch and an earthy loaf of seeds and crunch. Lemon cookies dusted with sugar are a nice old-fashioned touch; so is enhancing rice pudding with mascarpone (although the rice should be more tender). The dessert card recommends a tart Italian lemon liqueur with the cookies and I agree. It beats the espresso, which was thin and flat.

I wish Maggiano's put half the effort in the kitchen as out front, but people still have a good time here by the dozens, the hundreds.

The secret appeal of those long-ago family dinners wasn't always in the cooking. But no one criticized the cooks.

Maggiano's Little Italy

  • 203 WestShore Plaza, Tampa
  • Hours: Noon to 10 p.m., Sunday; 11:15 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11:15 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
  • Reservations: recommended
  • Details: Full bar, wheelchair access.
  • Special features: Takeout, private rooms, family-style service, live music.
  • Prices: Lunch, $6.95 to $15.95; dinner, $10.95 to $32.95; family styles, $9.95 lunch to $21.95 dinner.

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