Bella Brava and Pincho y Pincho, St. Petersburg

By Laura Reiley

ST. PETERSBURG

Flux is on the menu at two downtown favorites. At the end of 2007, Bella Brava closed briefly, made some cosmetic changes, upgraded the kitchen, hired new chef Brack May and revamped many of the dishes. A few blocks away, Ceviche made a major addition, opening Pincho y Pincho, which offers Spanish-style breakfast, lunch and dinner in a teeny, casual bistro within eyesight of its flagship dinner-only restaurant.

In the case of the latter, it's a resounding boon to downtown diners; with the former it's more complicated.

Many evenings, Bella Brava is something of a scene, its lively bar packed with regulars. Eavesdrop and you'll hear a bit of grousing. Sure, they say, the restaurant still has that glamorous urban Italy vibe, but the food is less Italian. They're right.

New England Culinary Institute graduate May came most recently from a seafood restaurant in Miami, with stints before that in New Orleans and Milwaukee. He's got range and ambition, with a commitment to finding local ingredients and buying organic when possible. He's tried to keep the prices fairly unfazed by his arrival, hiking up a few here, but dropping another bunch a buck or two.

All this should be sold better by the service staff. In a couple of visits, no one could tell me which menu items reflected this local/organic push, and no one could tell me exactly what May is doing differently or how the menu has changed.

In the absence of that, there was only one way to find out about the menu: Start eating. Fritto misto ($8 at lunch) is a holdover from the old menu, my most recent version of calamari, fennel and thin wheels of fried lemon. While the lemon is addictive, squid rings were over-fried. Charmoula grilled shrimp ($13) is emphatically Moroccan, a nice array of flavors coalescing in the bed of couscous with almond and apricot and a drizzle of orange basil aioli. The shrimp also needed a minute less heat, too tough, but the overall dish was a keeper. Chicken picatta ($13) at lunch shows May's ambivalence about straight-ahead Italian. His version contains a sly layer of avocado under the provolone, to my mind an unnecessary addition in an already buttery, cheesy dish.

At dinner, a nibble of mixed olives and preserved lemon ($4) or lengths of endive under a flurry of Gorgonzola and a drizzle of honey make punchy, easy finger food. A section of the menu now offers a selection of proteins (ahi, filet) and a selection of sauces (tomato cucumber relish, salsa verde), mix and match. More interesting to me was grilled prosciutto-wrapped Florida grouper ($24) on a bed of charred corn kernels, asparagus and little pasta shapes, all sweetened slightly with a roasted pepper butter. Slight Italian, but tasty. For dessert, you can't get much more Italian than a semolina pound cake with stewed fruits.

Pincho y Pincho, on the other hand, had me at hello. It seems plucked right off the streets of Barcelona, an any-time-of-the-day hangout where you can linger over a big bowl of milky coffee or wrestle with an open-face ham and manchego sandwich ($8) while watching pedestrians amble by. It's not good for groups (the largest table may accommodate three people), but a tiny table crammed with tapas and a pitcher of sangria ($16.75) seems the height of romance para dos.

Many dishes are straight off the menu at Ceviche, but even the veal and chorizo meatballs ($6) and braised lamb ribs with white beans ($9) taste somehow better from a perch at a sidewalk table. Pincho has nabbed some exceptional servers, big personalities with unflagging enthusiasm for the menu. They'll steer you away from the bland (the regular pan con tomate, $3.50, seemed almost like ketchup bread to me, not the squashed tomato and garlic rusk that's the Catalan standby) and toward the excellent (the gargantuan tres leches cake, $7.50, has a surprising spongy meringue layer that you keep eating beyond all good sense).

Breakfast may be its biggest gift to downtown. Pincho does a classic egg-potato-onion tortilla ($4), a sturdy and filling building block, best accompanied with applewood bacon ($3), a blob of aioli and a couple of glasses of fresh-squeezed OJ ($2.25). I've been told "pincho" means toothpick, a reference to Spanish tapas, but it also means pinch. No question about it, a couple of pinches of this is exactly what downtown needed.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found 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.

.REVIEW

Bella Brava

515 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

(727) 895-5515

Cuisine: Italian/American

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. weekdays, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Details: Amex, V, MC; reservations accepted; full bar

Prices: Dinner appetizers $4 to $9; dinner entrees $16 to $36

Pincho y Pincho

10 Beach Drive, St. Petersburg

(727) 209-2302

Cuisine: Spanish

Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Details: Amex, V, MC; no reservations; beer and wine

Prices: Breakfast $4 to $9; tapas $6 to $15

Bella Brava and Pincho y Pincho, St. Petersburg 02/27/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2008 5:00am]

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