A hearty welcome to new neighbors
[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Rigoletto features meat and game, including this pigeon with oyster mushroom and truffle potato puree.
By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 27, 2003
Two Italian restaurants are already waking up taste buds in Tampa.
TAMPA -- Apologies and fair warning: The two restaurants I am about to mention are barely a month old.
But the arrival of two such promising Italian restaurants at the same time is such a good omen, I can't resist. Another but: They're already drawing such good crowds, you'll need reservations.
And the biggest but: I wouldn't alert you to them if they weren't cooking exceptional food.
Rigoletto and Aldo's Italian are cooking the first new, authentic Italian food we've seen since the opening of Spartaco. It's not novellino stuff, but old world recipes that will expand your vocabulary beyond risotto.
Here you can learn to speak pappardelle, the big inch-wide noodles perfect for stews, and drink in limoncello, the lemon liqueur that Italians have made at home for years.
Both kitchens cook lustfully, adding sage and chicken livers to their sauces, and giving meats and fish a taste of the grill. And they're not afraid to put duck on the menu in red ragu or to add bright red beets to a salad.
Restaurateurs in both cases cleverly remodeled humdrum spaces into dramatic, stunning rooms that show that independents can be as handsome as chains.
The biggest transformation is Rigoletto, which Antonio Casamento fashioned from a hapless outbuilding in a Publix parking lot. Its warm sienna walls and open beams are perfect for an introduction to true Tuscan cooking, a phrase so often honored in the breach that I thought it might have to be outlawed.
[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Rigoletto has a warm Tuscan interior with sienna walls and open beams.
Although he is Sicilian, Casamento studied in Florence long enough to deliver a delicious corrective to the idea that Tuscan means something with heavy cream sauce and a high price.
No, Rigoletto's food is closer to the countryside and traditional hearth of Tuscany. Any place that offers cold beans with anchovies as a complimentary sample of the kitchen gets my taste buds jumping.
Authenticity is obvious in soups -- a Tuscan staple -- such as farro, a classic barley and bean soup, and bread dishes, which can be the equal of pastas. Bread crusts can be made into a refreshingly tart panzanella salad or the base of a seafood stew.
Of the dumplings, risotto and pasta, I can vouch only for noodles with blue crab, homemade, fresh and simple.
The pride of the house is meat and game, grilled and roasted. One night, Rigoletto had rabbit, pigeon and elk, but there's always a mixed roast, with quail on bread toasts spread with chicken liver. The rabbit came in a musky tomato sauce, seasoned with black olives, onions and giblets. The duck was in long-simmered tomatoes and vegetables. Neither was overpoweringly spicy, yet both had more flavor than a boneless skinless chicken breast has ever imagined.
My only disappointment was a starter of swordfish, a carpaccio of thinly sliced fish, with pepper, lemon olive oil and black pepper. Slightly watery sauce diluted a great combination of flavors and textures.
Don't pass up the sides. A medley of wild mushrooms is the real stuff.
Aldos Italian offers a lively, contemporary take on Italian cuisine such as braised short ribs osso buco.
Aldo's Italian offers a lively, contemporary take on a broader swath of Italy. It's the first effort this side of the Sunshine Skyway bridge by the successful Caragiulos of Sarasota. They acquired Il Gabbiano, a neighborhood fixture on Tampa's West Shore Boulevard that had gone dark, and brought it back to colorful life.
The decor is vividly retro, tomato reds and avocado greens in modernistic grids, curves and swerves, accented by mid-century lamps, Italian movie posters from the '60s and '70s, and a very '90s high-top table for a dozen singles.
If the design isn't the latest from Milan, there's solid Milanese fare such as Braised Short Ribs Osso Buco on the menu and big Tuscan ravioli in a beefy broth enriched with liver, pappardelle with Bolognese sauce plus a big steak with Florentine edge.
Aldo's does do more standards, old and new, but upgrades many of them by adding lobster risotto to grilled salmon and asparagus, and fava beans, rapini and roasted tomatoes to seared tuna.
This is where spinach and goat cheese meet roasted red beets, and the kitchen turns out a thick, whipped semifreddo for desserts.
Aldos retro decor includes Italian movie posters from the 60s and 70s.
In both restaurants, bread has crust and charm, the wines give a broad taste of Italy and the service is food-sharp and customer-friendly.
If Aldo's becomes merely a solid, stylish neighborhood place, the neighbors can count themselves fortunate.
If it keeps as distinctive a taste as I encountered in my first bites, Tampa and everyone within range of Gandy Boulevard will luck into two handsome servings of lusty, rustic Italian cooking.
After a drought of good restaurant news, we needed them.
- 3603 W Gandy Blvd., Tampa
- (813) 837-2655 Hours: 6:30 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
- Details: Reservations recommended, most credit cards accepted, beer and wine served; smoking outside only.
- Prices: Entrees $11 to $18.
- 3671 S West Shore Blvd., Tampa
- (813) 831-0694 Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
- Details: Reservations recommended, most credit cards accepted, full bar.
- Prices: Entrees $13 to $19.
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