Bella Brava's ambitions often seemed too big for its enormous britches. With 30-foot ceilings, two levels and room for 274, it struggled since it opened five years ago to fill the space, despite a lively bar, positive reviews and a comforting take on casual Italian cuisine. So, in late August, the owners joined the burgeoning Beach Drive scene, burrowing into a cozy spot with a revved-up bar and a menu much easier on the wallet.
The place is rocking. Lunch is quiet and steady, but weekend nights can find 45-minute waits and chattering crowds spilling onto the sidewalks, filling outdoor tables, creating an infectious energy. It feels like a bar with a restaurant, but it's by design.
"We wanted the bar to be much more of a central focus,'' says Mike Harting, general manager and a co-owner. "We wanted the energy more centralized.''
The design is modern but warm, with earth tones and fieldstone inside and out, floor-to-ceiling chalkboards, small teardrop lights over the three-sided bar. There's room for more than 200 total, with about 60 outside.
The outdoor vibe is lively, but all that centralized energy can make for a pretty noisy experience inside. At 6:30 on a Friday night it can be hard to hear the person next to you at the bar, and the adjoining dining rooms are not immune. Harting says they're working on noise-baffling fixes.
The new bar needed new cocktails ($8.99), so classics like the Negroni (Plymouth gin, sweet vermouth and Campari) join more modern drinks like a Strawberry Balsamic Martini (vodka, orange liqueur, fresh strawberries, sweet balsamic syrup and fresh lime juice). A healthy assortment of wines by the glass are divided into helpful categories ("medium body with moderate tannins and density'').
The menu, Harting says, mixes old favorites (sausage rigatoni with Asiago bread crust) and new dishes (lobster macaroni and cheese). After so much buzz about the coming and going of the last chef, Domenica Macchia, Harting says, "We really wanted to take the focus off the chef. It was getting way too much attention.'' So a management team creates and executes the menu, with prices designed to draw regulars. Nearly all the entrees are under $20, and the two that are not are reasonably priced. The rack of lamb ($21.99) is a generous portion atop mint pesto, with roasted vegetables and a choice of starch (try the mascarpone mashed potatoes). The fettucine Bolognese ($13.99) tastes fresh but untraditional — no cream, lots of tomato, not very meaty. A new oven has improved the pizzas with a crispier, lighter crust.
In keeping with the bar focus, a lot of time was spent on appetizers, Harting says. Carpaccio comes with peppery arugula, shredded Parmesan reggiano, capers and sea salt, the thin slices of beef crusted in black pepper. Calamari has delightful strips of fried zucchini and fennel.
But the most talked-about feature of the restaurant? A restroom fixture, the Dyson Airblade, a hand dryer that actually works. Go figure. "We spent an inordinate amount of time developing the menu,'' Harting says, "and we're known for the hand dryers!''
Acropolis moves in
If Bella Brava struggled to fill its old space on Central Avenue, the Acropolis Greek Taverna that took its place can feel like it's bursting at the seams. It opened to crowds Sept. 30 and hasn't looked back.
Quiet by day, with a pleasant sidewalk lunch crowd of office workers and visitors, Acropolis turns into a raucous party at dinner celebrating all things Greek. Weekend nights find a belly dancer and live music, celebratory plate-breaking and napkin-throwing, line dancing snaking in and out of the place every hour, and waiters holding flaming plates of cheese and yelling "Opa!" Animated waiters scurry up and down the two levels, customers fill the bar area and outdoor tables (some smoking hookahs), paper napkins hang from undulating wooden strips of the first-floor ceiling and are scattered about the floor (or falling onto your plate), the lilting sounds of a bouzouki fill the air.
There's food too, of course, reasonably priced Greek standards that will be familiar to anyone who has visited the three other parts of this mini Tampa Bay chain, which began in much humbler digs nine years ago in Ybor City.
Appetizers are $5 to $8. All but one entree is under $20, and the exception is a generous platter of kebobs ($27). A whole red snapper ($17) is delightfully moist, marinated in rosemary, garlic, olive oil and fresh lemon and charbroiled and topped with a lemon marinade. Lamb chops ($19) are tender and grilled just right.
The wine selection is entirely Greek, and there are five Greek beers to choose from. Sangria (a bit sweet) and margaritas (fresh lime juice) are 2-for-1 all the time.
The interior was remodeled with warm Mediterranean colors, thin tube lights hanging over the bar, and oversized paintings on the walls. A large circular table with comfortable banquettes replaced Bella Brava's enormous pizza oven.
This is not a place for quiet conversation, except at lunch. Pretend you're at a Greek wedding and join in the festivities. What's not to like? Fun atmosphere, reasonable prices.And those fancy Dyson Airblades? They've got those, too.