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Dine

Italian worthy of its namesake

Authentic dishes in a gracious setting distinguish Bellagio in downtown St. Petersburg.

By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published March 25, 2004

photo
[Times photos: Lara Cerri]
Bellagio’s tables spill onto the porch of the 1922 Ponce de Leon Hotel on Central Avenue.

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One appetizer served at Bellagio features fresh peeled shrimp with avocado and caviar.

One of the greatest offenses against the glories of Italy is taking the name of Bellagio in vain. Whoever put that mellifluous word on dozens of stores, restaurants, resorts and apartment buildings would remove it in embarrassment if they encountered the real thing.

There's a quiet beauty to that hilly town of classical villas that looks north to the Alps from a spectacular point on the shore of Lake Como. It is not without tourists, but it has attracted them since the age of Pliny the Younger. Dining under a grape arbor on trout from the lakes or rabbits from the hillside is simple yet magical.

It can't be reproduced in Las Vegas or elsewhere, but if anyone may be allowed to hang out that name it is Patricia Bakrac, who grew up on the shores of Como and now presides over a restaurant on the edge of Tampa Bay.

Worlds apart, even hizzoner Rick Baker would admit, but the grand old porch of the 1922 Ponce de Leon Hotel is a perfect place to install that sensibility. If you're going to fantasize about downtown St. Petersburg, this is a dream to have.

It's a lovely old mission-style building that happily escaped wrecking balls paving the way for a fake high-rise Mediterranean. What better place for Old World hoteliers like Patricia and Savni Bakrac to run a simple hotel and set out solid dinners at night?

Downtown St. Petersburg and this spot in particular have seen many grandiose dreams. Perhaps a good plate of pasta in fresh Bolognese, not glitz, is what we need.

You get those simple Italian pleasures in a gracious setting here, indoors or out, and with sharp service if you're lucky enough to be attended by the owners when they leave the hotel lobby to work the dining room.

The menu emphasizes authentic dishes in the Italian tradition. The fritto misto is closer to the Venetian style, shrimp as well as calamari. There's veal in tuna sauce, antipasto with Milanese salami, risotto and homemade gnocchi, still not common Italian fare locally.

Saucing cold veal with tuna is an oddity I've come to love (and I suppose dottore Atkins devotees would too). Bellagio's is tame enough for first-timers, more mayonnaise than tuna and enough veal, two thick slices, to be an entree, not a starter. Thinner carpaccio style would suit me fine.

Still heartier is veal saltimbocca, a protein overdose that wallows in the wealth of northern Italy, more thick veal, ham, butter and mozzarella, with only a small touch of sage for sober contrast. I'd have more sage from fresh leaves (they'd be easy to grow on the porch).

Bellagio does serve marinara and other tomato sauces, but the kitchen seems proudest of its cream sauces, from mushroom to carbonara. Enriching them with four cheeses, including a punchy Gorgonzola, is a treat that should be shared. A full order of cream sauce over fresh potato dumplings should be reserved for triathletes and others who look good in Umbro shorts.

The trimmings are simple: bread, wine, a bright green salad, classic tiramisu and espresso. The menu and service are still taking shape, but the Bakracs have already installed the right spirit in a lovely location.

This is not hotel food as we know it, nor exotic nuovo Italian, but the kind of friendly dining that accompanies lodging in small family hotels of Europe.

Yet we need not be tourists. It happens to be on our doorstep, with a view and a breeze.

- Chris Sherman dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays for all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for a review or the assessment of its quality.

- Chris Sherman can be reached at 727 893-8585 or sherman@sptimes.com

BELLAGIO

95 Central Ave.

St. Petersburg

(727) 550-2131

Hours: 5 p.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday; bar open until 2 a.m.

Reservations: Suggested

Details: Credit cards accepted, full bar, no smoking indoors, accessible by elevator.

Prices: $10.95 to $19.95.

Features: Outdoor seating.

[Last modified March 24, 2004, 10:18:47]


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