Diners in Dunedin were not happy when Bellini closed in July. Controversy and lawsuits surrounded the closing, but the bottom line was this: Ciro Mancini's food wasn't available anymore. Fast-forward a few months and head due south about 3 ½ miles, and Mancini's fans will find that all is right again.
Casanova opened in October on Clearwater's main drag. The upscale Italian cuisine has made the trip from Dunedin's Main Street unscathed.
The dining room is elegant, with marble surfaces, neutral colors and chandeliers. It's beautiful and classy, but a little hard-edged to the point that it feels like something is missing. Some drapery, maybe, just to soften the space?
That's a minor point. The food is a major point. And there were no missteps there.
Off the bat, there's something unique. Along with the bread basket, we get a plate of zeppole, a fried dough. Usually a sweet treat, these are laced with seaweed, lightly salted and highly addictive.
The appetizer list is seafood-centric. The sauteed mussels (sautee di cozze, $12) were plump, briny and fresh, cooked with super sweet cherry tomatoes in white wine, garlic and oil. The fried calamari and shrimp (frittura di mare, $16), was delicately battered and fried, and wonderfully tender. Slices of zucchini come with the calamari and shrimp, so you get your veggies. Of course, it's fried, too.
The most luxurious item among the appetizers, and maybe the whole menu, is the tuna tartare (tartar di tonno, $16). Mancini doesn't settle for the normal presentation of lightly dressed chunks of tuna. He dresses the fish with a decadent lemon-basil creme fraiche, and tosses lobster in for good measure. The textural differences between the tuna and lobster make the dish. Cucumbers surround the serving, but that isn't enough of a garnish for a dish like this, so Mancini tops it with a little caviar. Every element is memorable.
Meats, seafood and poultry have spots on the menu, but the first and most prominent listing is for pastas. Take this as a hint.
There is classic. Pappardelle Bolognese ($18) is a plate of thick, housemade pasta tossed in the traditional meat ragout of Bologna. The pasta is so good that it is an element of the dish rather than a vehicle for the sauce. It might be disingenuous to complain that maybe there could have been more of the rich meat sauce, because had there been more sauce, I may have just wanted more pasta to go with it.
There is unique. Pappardelle Martina ($22) has that same pasta, but here it is tossed with a coconut-saffron sauce and arugula, topped with sauteed shrimp and a little bit of . . . strawberry? It takes an open mind to order that kind of dish, but open minds are often rewarded. The coconut complements the shrimp and also the strawberries, then makes them work together, and the bitter arugula is there to make sure the whole thing doesn't get too sweet.
There is quasi-local. Many dishes on the menu have local cities in the name. There is no obvious connection between the dishes and the towns they represent, but it is easy to imagine there are stories there. We tried the Tortelloni Clearwater ($20), which is a pasta stuffed with veal and beef tossed in a mushroom Marsala sauce. Whatever its connection to the city, it is bold and rich and does its namesake proud.
And there are the specials. An oft-occurring one is the osso buco ($40), and it might be worth a call ahead to see if it will be available when you go. It is worth planning your schedule around. The veal shank is braised for six hours, and comes to the table on top of a bed of spaghetti in marinara. The meat falls apart into the pasta with a touch of the fork. And speaking of forks, there is a tiny one set into the end of the bone so you can retrieve the marrow. Nice.
Desserts aren't made on premises. In fact, they aren't made in the country. They're imported from Italy, which is a little disappointing. As good as everything else is, it would be nice to see what Mancini would do with the dolce. But what is offered is good. The tiramisu ($8) is a nice caffeine hit.
Service is personable and professional. Although some staff members were completely suited to give good wine suggestions from an impressive list, others were not as prepared.
There is live music in the lounge Wednesday through Saturday, with a range of genres depending on the night, and the previously mentioned hard surfaces make it a live music experience for just about everyone in the restaurant.
But mainly, you'll be there for the food. If you are being serenaded by an opera singer, some cool jazz or a Sinatra-esque crooner, all the better.
Jim Webster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.