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The jewel in BayWalk's crown

Gratzzi is a big night out when it comes to fine food and atmosphere, but it doesn't break the bank.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Restaurant Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- This city has been going through BayWalk's new restaurants like a child who'd never experienced Christmas, opening package after glittering package with growing amazement.

photo
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Gratzzi owner and chef Alfie Crescentini delivers a dish to be photographed. You won’t see these tables empty when the restaurant is open in the evening; the crowds are already flocking to this BayWalk hot spot.
When diners got around to the big red box marked Gratzzi last month, I think they got their wishes fulfilled. I know I did: an Italian restaurant with a broad menu, sharp execution, a charming setting, a lively crowd -- and manageable prices.

I rarely review restaurants this young, so that they have time to work out kinks and get ready for crowds. And though Gratzzi will need fine-tuning, the crowds are already there.

By the first weekend, there was a 50-minute wait at 10 p.m., an hour at which St. Petersburg diners were asleep 10 years ago. On Super Bowl weekend, when well-tanned and oiled Very Important Players jammed Dan Marino's to open the last of BayWalk's gifts, the lines were almost as long at Gratzzi.

Action, late-night action, in downtown St. Petersburg?

O ye -- and me -- of little faith, it can and has happened.

That's the main reason for my early review: pure, giddy civic pride. I felt almost as much as Mr. BayWalk, Mel Sembler, who worked the room one of the nights I was there.

Pride and the fact that Gratzzi can take it. A bite of the most mundane, like the lemony lentil salad, with lush salmon smoked in-house, convinced me that the place is already an excellent restaurant.

Despite a few disappointments, it's the classiest place in BayWalk and one of the rare home-grown originals in our new corporate playlands. With the backing of Sembler, Van McNeel and Durango's Fred Bullard, Gratzzi is hardly a mom-and-pop; it will grow up to be at least a small chain.

Still, Alfie Crescentini (former executive chef at the Grille at Feather Sound) has created the most innovative upscale Italian restaurant on either side of Tampa Bay.

Any restaurateur who thinks Italian food consists of pasta and tomato sauce and melted mozzarella on one end and veal chops and lobster ravioli on the other -- and you know who you are -- should check out this menu. There's watercress, polenta, risotto cakes, duck and rabbit, merluzzo (Mediterranean cod), mushroom salads, cold fish, good cheeses, veal soup and eggplant and beans everywhere, plus a wood fire for grilling and roasting.

Aside from fillips of New American whimsy such as an indulgent stack of creamy crab and eggplant or escargot in potatoes with goat cheese, most has strong Italian roots. (Anyone who'd complain about sirloin tips crusted with Parmesan merits the Italian for killjoy.)

The concept is backed by a strong kitchen, as you can see through a handsome frame at the entrance. Look past the roasting birds, and there's a big clean space with a large crew polished at every station.

Just finding rabbit soffrito on a menu pleases me; having it served in a crisp polenta bowl, spiked with sage and braised with tomatoes and a classic mirepoix, convinces me. Wonderful winter fare. An "open" ravioli with lobster beat local versions, with lots of precious meat on wide noodles (egg pasta striped with spinach) in a delicate white wine broth.

Warm mushroom salad on wilted spinach was plenty comforting and savory, and dabs of goat cheese and candied walnuts added extra fun in the mouth. Choosing good bread (from Tampa's Pane Rustica) set the table apart.

Not everything is perfected. Osso bucco came with a crispy polenta cake and robust long-simmered ragout, but veal shanks need to cook forever, too (that's why I want restaurants to cook them). Mussels, white beans and escarole over linguine with tomatoes and garlic is my kind of old-country eating, but teeny bay scallops added only confusion; I'd rather have sausage or clams in the mix.

Both kitchen and servers need to brush up on risotto. When I asked for a description of the day's risotto, I got a lecture on arborio rice. Wrong, that's risotto all the time. On this day it turned out to be blue crab, a very generous and creamy helping atop the rice, but not cooked into it in the classic fashion.

I'm awed that Gratzzi has mustered enough warm bodies to fill the wait staff for one more high-end restaurant and that most are sharp professionals, swift to bring extra silver, brush the table and even hold the meal in the kitchen until all parties were present. Others, however, need more training and grace. Interrupting a conversation to ask the pace at which we want our meal served spoils the effect.

These flaws don't diminish my thrill at Gratzzi's accomplishment. It gives BayWalk its first restaurant of serious culinary merit, set in a grand space that ranges from bare-wood casual to queenly regal, and does it at not-so-big-bucks prices.

You can get a house salad for $3, pastas, duck and even a monster pork chop for $16 or less, and dozens of low mark-up wines with good labels under $30 (we do need more by the glass). It's not once-a-week eating for most budgets, but the pricing doesn't soak a couple of diners out for a splurge.

The proper word for this is, of course, grazie.

Gratzzi

  • BayWalk, 199 Second Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 822-7769
  • Hours: 3 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 3 to 11 p.m. Friday, Saturday; 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday
  • Credit cards: AE, DC, D, MC, V
  • Details: Full bar, no-smoking section provided, good wheelchair access
  • Reservations: Recommended
  • Features: Room for private parties; wine lockers; outside seating planned

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