By LAURA REILEY
Times Food Critic
ST. PETERSBURG — I've written Domenica Macchia's name so many times I feel like a doodle-happy schoolgirl. I never knew her food when she cooked at Redwoods, but I was wowed by her New American small-plate dynamism at MJ's Martini Jazz & Tapas Lounge, which opened in fall 2008 in St. Petersburg. The gig didn't work out for her (and the restaurant is now closed) and she spent a bunch of months looking for her next big thing.
She found it in an unlikely place: a restaurant space with the curse of numerous short-lived projects — Tedesco's Flame Broiled Grill, then Tedesco's Grillside, then Grillside Central. The building itself is tricky. A homely open kitchen full of hinky equipment at the front flanked by a narrow spit of dining room opens up to a dark, square dining space at the back. The flat-top doesn't always work, the ventilation is poor and oven space is at a premium.
By the time the lessee, Greg Pugh, owner of Ringside Cafe, hired Macchia, they both had an elegant solution for playing to the space's strengths. Make it casual, maybe even retro, use the open kitchen to Macchia's advantage (great people skills, a little hammy showmanship). How about a diner? Eggs all day, thick shakes, cheesecake murals of pin-up waitresses.
But because it's Macchia — a little quirky, a little subversive — it's ironic diner, postmodern diner, diner with duck-fat fries ($7) and warm mixed olives and almonds ($5). There's comfort food aplenty: A warm jelly dougnut is decapitated and filled with a scoop of vanilla ice cream ($5), an homage to Macchia's grandfather, who surreptitiously fed her one of these every day after school. Now that's a good grandfather.
But even the comfort food gets a careful glamorizing. It's more Pygmalion than What Not to Wear, because the saucy, gutsy original shines through brilliantly in many dishes. Macchia is a fan of big flavors — a zing of lemon zest, a punch of garlic, the minerally wallop of chicken livers or musk of slow-cooked duck. Now bring all these things to bear on honest, filling, inexpensive diner food and it seems perfectly suited to this moment in time.
I ate my way through most of the menu and had a few clunkers (one night's skirt steak, $12, had been marinated too long; the chicken breast sandwich, $9, gets sogged by its stewed tomatoes; the salmon hash, $9, tasted too oily/fishy one lunchtime). But there are so many things to be charmed by.
Macchia has resurrected green goddess dressing on a classic wedge salad ($7) — the dressing universally beloved back when ranch was still in diapers. She does a devilish spin on the egg salad sandwich ($7), brioche cradling a mixture just barely zapped with sherry vinegar. She grinds her own sirloin in the back for her burgers ($7), but that's not even the best part: Just sit me down with a vat of the burger-topping bacon onion jam and a big spoon.
A couple of my favorite dishes aren't really diner fare at all. Batter-dipped and fried green beans and asparagus ($6) get a sauce that tastes like citrus-sparked buttermilk. However, for some reason the slick asparagus suckers pull right out of their batter on first bite. Then pair that with a just-wilted pile of sauteed spinach ($4) heady with garlic and lemon, or, if your appetite will manage, a crisp griddled sandwich of soft shredded short rib meat and molten fontina ($8) and a thick espresso milkshake ($5). Brilliant, all of it.
I'd like to see more classic diner desserts, pies and such, and I think the short entree list is too weighted to beef offerings. I'm content to sit at the counter and plow through an order of duck-fat fries (only offered Thursday to Saturday after 4 p.m.), golden crisp on the outside, fluffy and rich on the inside, paired with a nutty/mellow roasted garlic aioli. Or maybe a beer and an order of warm pretzels ($6) waggled in a grainy mustard while I watch Macchia jockey between the fryer and the griddle. Now, if she stays put at Diner 437, I suppose that means I'll have to find another talented itinerant chef to shadow. I can live with that.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.