Learn what vibrant tastes like

And what it looks like, too. At Pia's, well-prepared dishes with hearty ingredients shine in an atmospheric patio setting.

Published April 12, 2007

GULFPORT -- Pia's Trattoria is the kind of sweetly earnest restaurant that you'd like to think unfurls fully realized from the ground. Just a kernel of vision, nurtured by sweat and love, fortified by some good basic ingredients and a healthy inoculation of Italian culinary know-how.

The menu is short at this Gulfport storefront, the same at lunch and dinner.

Weighted to crusty pressed panini and pastas topped with one of a handful of simple sauces, its strength lies in its building blocks. Arugula is peppery and spry, Parmesan nutty and crystalline. Tomatoes come deep red and flavorful, prosciutto and Genoa salami are the real deal.

At lunch, a generous bowl of spicy greens $6 arrived dressed in just a bit of good balsamic, topped with thick shavings of Parmesan (maybe a little too thick). With it, the day's special soup (a bargain at $3): cold gazpacholike cucumber, dashed with cream and harboring sweet shrimp.

From there we made our way through an al dente heap of bow-ties ladled with a smoky/spicy arrabiata sauce ($10.50) heightened with a bit of prosciutto and salami. More prosciutto came tucked in with a molten mantle of mozzarella and a tangle of arugula in the "crudo" panini ($9.50). In all, sweet was balanced with salty, soft textures with something pleasingly crunchy.

At dinner, the same robust, straightforward aesthetic prevails.

Rusks of bread are piled with sweet tomato and red onion in a foursome of bruschetta ($4). Rounds of more tomato get caps of soft fresh mozzarella, a dab of emerald pesto, and dots of olive oil and balsamic in a simple caprese ($8).

The evening's special pasta broke up our tomato fest, with artichoke hearts and fat shrimp tossed in a velvety cream sauce with lengths of penne ($16). Only a mortadella panini ($7.50; ingredients: bread and mortadella) slipped from "simple" to perilously close to "boring."

Still, boredom seems hardly a concern for the lively throngs that populate Pia's.

The restaurant is a teeny bit foyer and mostly outdoor patio. One enters into a service bar backed by a blackboard wall chalked with coffees and beer offerings (Peroni and Moretti, big surprise, but also a passel of excellent Germans). The intimate room is presided over by a grim headshot of Luciano Pavarotti.

The few tables indoors accept the spillover from the bricked patio out back, where all the action happens.

Pia's is an easy place to linger, to have animated discussion and a carafe of crisp pinot grigio. An actual Pia presides in the kitchen, and her husband, Tom, seems to hold sway in the front of the house, ferrying out a cannoli here (excellent, the crisp shell harboring a perfectly cinnamony ricotta filling) or a bottle of water there (no tap water, for some reason).

It's a neighborhood find, capturing the intimate scale and no-fuss charms of so many Italian trattorias. And just like in Palermo, where you might walk off the pasta with a stroll at Mediterranean's edge, in Gulfport the warm water of the gulf beckons from just a couple of blocks away.

Laura Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment. Reiley can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or lreiley@sptimes.com.