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At Bernini, service is an art form

With its innovative Italian and a wait staff honed to perfection, this Ybor upstart, in its seventh year, has earned an air of permanence.

Published March 18, 2004

[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
High ceilings, an air of permanence and an inventive menu define Bernini.

Bernini’s surf and turf entree, front, features a half veal rack paired with a grilled lobster tail. A carpaccio appetizer, at rear, is pepper-crusted, seared beef tenderloin with capers, fried onions, parmesan, lemon aioli and a balsamic drizzle.

YBOR CITY - The true sign of a restaurant's maturity is service. By that measure, Bernini has grown up: Its servers always hustle, yet still have time to make diners feel at home and to deal with crises, sometimes all at once.

Thus the focus remains on snap-cracking grissini, crispy pizza and robust pastas, garnished with the buzz of big-city crowds in one of Tampa's grandest settings.

That quality of service holds from the host station through the dining room to the bar. When a gray-haired customer accidentally tumbled out of her chair, our waiter helped her up and comforted her. Then he returned to us while catching his breath and took our order. One day at lunch, my bartender had as much savvy in food as mixology, and the grace to slip around to my side of the bar to serve the meal.

So Bernini has come of age before its eighth birthday. That's an accomplishment, especially in the strobe-lit chaos of Ybor City, where Bernini joins a small group of stalwarts like La Tropicana and the Columbia's corner dining room.

Bernini does it day and night with a rare, successful combination of old and new, a lovely classical space with the high ceilings of a century-old bank lobby and the exciting smells and tastes of a modern Italian kitchen. A wood-fired oven turns out pizzas as contemporary as fig and prosciutto and as familiar as puttanesca packed with olives and anchovies. The land beyond pizza is more exciting. Chef Jason Fernandez gilds veal scaloppine with mascarpone and porcini butter; surf and turf moves up to pair lobster tail with a small veal rack and a risotto cake with lobster butter.

Big scallops seared to rare crisp, milky perfection meet bowtie pasta striped with squid and lightly tossed with cream, peas and bacon; both Venice and the carbonara would approve of the match.

Fernandez's braciola wraps portobello, asparagus, cheese and sun-dried tomatoes inside beef tenderloin, which seems too much until you have your first bite. Now, that four-cheese sauce on the angel-hair pasta, well, you probably should stop after one bite.

More important, the chef is a fan of vegetables. Grouper crusted with pistachio comes with broccolini, and sea bass gets Swiss chard and mashed sweet potatoes. This is a kitchen that cares about spinach and risotto as well as shiitakes and wasabi.

Simpler fare, such as potato leek soup, was punched up with crumbles of Gorgonzola. At lunch, a humble pescatore of grouper, salmon and mussels on fettuccine and a light sauce of olive oil was so freshly made you could have been on the docks.

The wine list is strong on not-so-common alternative reds and whites and a selection of Italians, including a few of the fine '97s. The breads are fresh and impressive, and the desserts step outside the usual to include a house-baked tartlet.

At lunch, Bernini does not attempt a Cuban, but for a flavor of the neighborhood, there's a bomb of a hoagie loaded with salami, mortadella and capicola, as well as an oyster po' boy. Those are tastes of working cities, and though they get an upscale setting and higher price here, they reassure me that the city may not be lost, just hidden under plastic wrap and artificial hype.

When Bernini opened, the food was sharp and dramatic but overpowered by the theatrics of martinis, cigars and leopard skin uniforms.

Bernini is less flashy now - no newcomer, but still modern. It has earned permanence and a bustling trade through traditional virtues as well as innovation. They are as simple as the big windows filled with potted palms and as classic as the work of its namesake sculptor: a kitchen that loves food and sharp service to deliver it.

Bernini of Ybor

1702 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City

(813) 248-0099

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays; dinner, 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Reservations: Strongly recommended

Details: Credit cards accepted, full bar, wheelchair-accessible, smoking outdoors only

Price: Lunch, $6.50 to $11.75; dinner entrees and pizzas, $10 to $24

[Last modified March 17, 2004, 13:41:11]

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