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Best hotel dining around Tampa Bay

Gamberoni Alla Griglia, grilled jumbo shrimp with smoked mozzarella ravioli (foreground) and the Insalata Di Pomodori Rossi E Gialli Napoleone, or the chef's tomato salad stack, are two specialties at Armani's.

Brian Cassella | Times

Gamberoni Alla Griglia, grilled jumbo shrimp with smoked mozzarella ravioli (foreground) and the Insalata Di Pomodori Rossi E Gialli Napoleone, or the chef's tomato salad stack, are two specialties at Armani's.

Often hotel restaurants have deep pockets and broad resources of talent, square footage and the three Ls: location, location, location. Still, hotel dining is tricky, often suffering from the need to be all things to all people, whether that's a business meeting locale that doesn't call too much attention to itself or the benign backdrop for a family vacation. Here are Tampa Bay's best bets for hotel dining.

Hillsborough

Pelagia: Designed by the same firm as Caretta on the Gulf, Pelagia may be the prettiest hotel restaurant in the area, with its hand-glazed tiles, custom ironwork and cheery blown-glass light fixtures. Proffering some of the bay area's best Italian, or Cal-Ital or even Nuevo-Ital, the kitchen is overseen by local superstar chef Fabrizio Schenardi. Opened in 2004, the restaurant had a tiny facelift last year, hardly necessary as the bold palate in the dining room elegantly echoes chef Schenardi's lush cuisine. Dive into an order of his justifiably famous meat-stuffed fried olives or a plate of delicate octopus flavored with garlic and mint. Vegetarians can revel in a generous platter of grilled portobellos, eggplant, peppers and squash, their smokiness contrasting beautifully with a bowl of "gazpacho dipping sauce," which really amounted to a warm puree of tomatoes, peppers and cukes, jazzed up perfectly with a splash of vinegar. Renaissance Tampa Hotel International Plaza, 4200 Jim Walter Blvd., Tampa. (813) 313-3235.

Armani's: From atop the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, you can watch a flock of roseate spoonbills nuzzle in the shallows far below at Armani's, Tampa's most luxurious special-occasion Northern Italian. Its antipasto offerings have an almost cult following: At the long bar that contains dozens of Italophile dreams (marinated eggplant, velvety roasted peppers), you point and the nice lady loads up your plate. If you don't go the antipasti route, a la carte items are equally worthwhile. A trio of servers work as a team: Ask the main waiter to help you zero in on the perfect unoaked chardonnay to go with the veal scaloppine crowded with asparagus, artichokes and toasted pine nuts. The back waiter will remove the dishes, while a third returns with the dessert tray. Make your sweet selection and catch the setting sun from the 14th floor. Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, 2900 Bayport Drive, Tampa. (813) 207-6800.

Pinellas

Caretta on the Gulf: Sandpearl Resort, the first new resort to be built on Clearwater Beach in 25 years, contains the exemplary Caretta on the Gulf. Named for a species of loggerhead turtle, the restaurant has all the elements that make for success: sleek and knowledgeable service, a gorgeous beach view, stunning decor, plus tasty and sensibly priced food and drink.

A lovely raw bar near the restaurant entrance sets the tone with ceviche, oysters on the half shell, spiny lobster and spicy tuna sushi rolls. Then the rosy glow and crackle of a wood-burning oven sends out roasted fish, chicken and meats that for the most part are paired with thoughtful, unusual side dishes and sauces. It's hard food to categorize -- it's robustly contemporary and American, but with Asian fillips of edamame and lemongrass, glass noodles and Sriracha. It's heavy on the shellfish and luxury ingredients, but it also takes risks. Sandpearl Resort, 500 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach. (727) 441-2425.

Marchand's Grill: The Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club was built by Pennsylvania oilman Aymer Vinoy Laughner in 1925. At $3.5-million, the Mediterranean Revival-style hotel was the largest construction project in Florida's history. In keeping with the glamour of the historic hotel, its restaurant, Marchand's Grill, sparkles with opulent appointments and an equally opulent clientele.

The menu has undergone some major changes in the past few years, arriving at a formula that is seafood heavy but reflects a stylish and loosely Mediterranean sensibility with saucing and garniture. This may mean an appetizer of peeky toe crab cakes, no-filler cakes topped with a little tangle of piquant candied apricot, accented with dabs of avocado aioli and lemony creme fraiche, or seared dayboat scallops on a bed of saffron couscous and with tender baby bok choy and a dollop of shallot truffle marmalade. Renaissance Vinoy Resort, 501 5th Ave. NE, St. Petersburg. (727) 894-1000.

Maritana Grill: Since its completion in 1928, the Don CeSar — that big, Pepto Bismol-pink beachside confection — has been a special-occasion dining destination. The King Charles used to be the big-deal dining room at the hotel. These days it's for private functions and the lavish Sunday brunch, the Maritana Grill downstairs having been transformed into the fine-dining digs in 1994. Its assets: It's an intimate, clubby room sporting big fish tanks in case the conversation flags. In other words, it's not a strangulating-necktie, which-spoon-do-I-use fussy hotel dining room. Servers follow suit, pairing good knowledge of the menu and meal pacing with a casual chattiness.

But what makes a fairly hefty price tag palatable is chef Eric Neri's chops. Entrees get subtle Floribbean touches, with tropical fruit and lobsters making multiple appearances. A quartet of perfectly seared sea scallops is paired with a disc of sinfully rich lobster risotto, or for something more rib-sticking, a delicious duo of roasted lamb chops and a swath of shank confit arrives with a slather of truffled mashed potatoes. Don CeSar, 3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach. (727) 360-1882.

Best hotel dining around Tampa Bay 12/20/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 12:21pm]

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