PALM HARBOR — There is one clear choice at Corteo's. And that choice is pizza. Some say it's in a New Yorker's DNA. The crust, baked dark, not crispy like a cracker, but not doughy; chewy and with good tooth resistance (a promising sign when you have to make kind of a snarl face to bite off the outer puffy edge of the pizza). A good amount of cheese but not overly lavish with the sauce. And fuggedabout the frou-frou toppings like goat cheese or Thai peanut sauce.
The Corteo family started their first couple of restaurants, called Umberto's and Umberto's II, in New Hyde Park, Long Island and Mineola, N.Y. They set up shop in Dunedin in 1975 and brought their pizza chops with them, eventually opening Michele's (the family patriarch) in 1980 in Palm Harbor. Papa retired, but sons John and Neil jumped back into the pizza game when they opened Corteo's in 2007.
Once the initial choice (pizza, please) has been made, there are a number of good directions in which to amble. The white pizza ($11.95 medium, $12.95 large) is the best of several I tried, the mantle of goo a just-perfect balance of mozzarella, ricotta and Parmesan, little flecks of basil a bright counterpoint against all that cheese. On another visit, the Neapolitan ($9.50, $10.95) was similarly luscious, its tomato sauce a good balance of sweet and tangy, not too aggressively tomato-pasty. The Grandma Rustic Home Style ($12.95) is a different pie altogether, baked in a square, with a thicker crust and a chunkier, garlicky tomato sauce. I found it to have too much bare crust edge, but that's really a preference thing — the flavors were good.
The restaurant space is tidy and functional, not particularly glamorous, with unclothed tables and simple cafe chairs. Service follows suit: friendly and solicitous without being highfalutin, just what you're looking for when you're hefting a slice in one hand and a glass of inexpensive tarry/black cherry Citra Montepulciano ($4.95) in the other.
With the rest of the menu we adopted a scattershot approach. First a sextet of baked clams ($7.95), the bivalves themselves tasty, but a bit of grit and slightly sodden bread crumb topping mucking up our appreciation. From there we tried soups, the long-simmered minestrone ($2.95, $3.95) certainly homey but a little soft on the veggies, the pasta e fagioli ($2.95, $3.95) a much superior choice, seasoned more memorably and crowded with plush cannelini beans and slithery noodles.
Pastas are solid, straightforward and generous in portion. The sauce on one evening's ziti a la vodka ($11.95) hit that satisfying note of creamy-tangy; the consumption of another night's ultra-rich fettuccine Alfredo ($10.95) verged on requiring clerical absolution. We were less wowed by other entrees: A classic chicken marsala ($13.95 and all entrees come with either soup or salad and pasta with tomato sauce) featured well-cooked chicken and a textbook marsala sauce; only the sliced mushrooms were tired and spongy.
Desserts? You know what to expect. It's tiramisu ($4.75), spumoni ($2.95) and cannoli ($2.95). We were told this last is made, or at least stuffed, in-house. Nicely seasoned sweet ricotta filling, but the pastry shell didn't explode into shards upon fork contact the way the most fabled cannoli do.
Whether their place is called Umberto's or Michele's or Corteo's, the Corteo family's strength, besides sheer longevity and tenacity in the restaurant business, is pizza. Not a bad family legacy.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at 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.