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Delicious finds in surprising places

Follow your nose, not your eyes, when you're seeking great food. Carino's Italian Caffe and Carino's Too occupy pedestrian locations, but press forward: The food and service inside are fit for royalty.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Food and Wine Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000

ST. PETE BEACH -- You and I learned long ago that good food comes in tiny strip-mall packages. Carino's forces me to go even further and acknowledge that the richest of food sometimes comes in a forest of silk flowers and white latticework.

Indeed, those who set too much store by decor will have to go to bed without Carino's agnolotti principessa -- and they'll be much the poorer. These little pillows stuffed with asparagus and ricotta would be indulgent enough tossed with olive oil and garlic, but served in a cream sauce this luxurious, they're shameful.

Half the west side of St. Petersburg already knows that. What looks like another neighborhood restaurant with high hopes and no view squeezed into a minimall actually does rise above the crowd with friendly, diligent service and sumptuous food. That was confirmed earlier this year when the Pereiro family chose Carino's to take over Julio's, a local favorite for more than 20 years; it has become Carino's Too.

Menus differ slightly, although food at both is styled Northern Italian. That's the American translation, but it is better described as the good stuff. This is sophisticated, spare-no-fat Italian, meals that can go beyond ordinary spaghetti and red sauce and celebrate with veal, rack of lamb or even lobster. Sure there's marinara and fra diavolo, but there's a rosy aurora enriched with cream, vodka sauce, especially meaty Bolognese and white Bechamel you don't want to tell your doctor about. It's not all luxuries. Carino's also takes extra care with vegetables and bakes a crusty bread distinctive enough to buy and take home.

Karim Nouri's cooking does come from classic sources. Although born in Morocco, he grew up in Italy and perfected his cooking in Milan before coming to New York, and then to Tampa's Donatello and Cafe Amaretto. With his wife, brothers and the rest of the family, he prepares the full range of Italian food, including a dessert table of cheesecake and pastries.

The most enticing first impression is a small table bearing an array of cold antipasti, a touch I remember from Amaretto. The best of this is simple vegetables, chilled Italian beans and grilled zucchini and eggplant, as sweet as I've had -- and can never achieve at home. Cold button mushrooms and red-sauced mussels were the least of it.

[Times photo: Lisa DeJong]
Chef Simo Nouri, one of the owner’s brothers, specializes in rack of lamb, filetto al pepe nero and agnolotti principessa, as well as appetizers and rich desserts, all popular offerings at Carino’s Italian Caffe.
If you must have an a la carte appetizer, calamari in a smoky tomato broth at the original Carino's is a fine starter, light but robust in flavor. You could also make do with salad, good if the kitchen uses the best tomatoes, and the bread, a crisp round loaf of Italian white bread.

To enjoy the best of Carino's, order as the Italians do, getting both pasta and a main course (but just a half order of pasta and then promise extra exercise tomorrow). That's the best way to sample the glorious agnolotti or indulge in the risotto. The latter is a Nibbler favorite, but only rarely done here. Mine, at the original Carino's, was made with the minimal flavoring of Champagne and ordinary mushrooms, but the virtue lay as it should in the rice, transformed with care into its creamiest state.

Entrees go beyond the standards, with a smattering of artichokes, capers, better mushrooms and distinctive sauces. A brown sauce infused with pepper and cognac was perfect for medallions of beef tenderloin (filet was good but I'd like a seared crust). Old-fashioned scampi were big and tender, perfectly accompanied by the diavolo, a solid tomato sauce hotly spiced, and good linguine, cooked with bite to the tooth.

Best of all was a special of osso buco. I might have bypassed it for the signature veal dish, but when I asked the server, she burst with excitement about the shanks she'd just seen come out of the oven. "You can smell them from here." She was right, and they were even better on the plate: the tenderest of meat falling off the bone in a light tomato-y broth, with a cocktail fork stuck in the small end of the marrow, tender and luscious. The Nibbler doesn't want to miss a dollop of this, the most wicked Italian pleasure outside the Testarossa.

Carino's Too has almost everything Carino's does and a couple of things it doesn't, a bar and lunch. Stopping in on a weekday, I found the second location had the same overgrown garden decor, starched linens, fine bread and serious service. Lunch menu ranges from penne and filled pastas to chicken and fish. Tortellini was rather heavy and my salmon dry (I'll have it grilled next time), but the aurora sauce on the pasta and a lime fennel concoction on the salmon were both nicely done. Fresh salads and good bread made it an unusually elaborate and pleasant lunch stop along this stretch of 66th Street N.

Ultimately that's what I like best about Carino's. It's a reminder that if you put aside preconceptions of location and style, you may find independent restaurateurs who care about quality and service. As Carino's shows, it can be richly rewarding.

Carino's Italian Caffe

  • 9524 Blind Pass Road, St. Pete Beach; (727) 360-8502

Carino's Too

  • 6218 66th St. N, Pinellas Park; (727) 546-6287
  • HOURS: Carino's is open 4 to 11 p.m. daily. Carino's Too is open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and for dinner from 4 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
  • RESERVATIONS: Suggested
  • DETAILS: Non-smoking section provided; beer, wine at St. Pete Beach; full bar in Pinellas Park
  • PRICES: Dinner entrees, $8.95 to $18.95; lunch, $4.95 to $8.95.

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