ST. PETERSBURG — There's an old editing adage. The first draft reveals the art, revision reveals the artist. This holds true with restaurants, too. In a business with an astounding failure rate, a successful restaurateur is one who tinkers, separates the wheat from the chaff, pares away the shriveled parts and bruises to leave only the pristine fruit.
Last year was a tough one for downtown restaurants, but some of the better ones took great pains to re-examine themselves. BellaBrava fine-tuned its evening routine, but took a hiatus from lunch business to rethink the offerings. The results are a tremendous boon to downtown office workers. Nothing over $10, lunch can be ordered online, a fragrant panini or flatbread awaiting you to-go when you walk in the door.
But it's better experienced from a table, maybe on the second-story balcony overlooking Central Avenue. Lunchtime servers know the menu, ably explaining the unfamiliar (the piadina was described, quite accurately, as a sandwich hailing from Romagna that's like a flatbread mated with a calzone) and realize most of us have to get in and out fairly quickly.
When faced with such a lush (and vast) wedge of lasagna ($10), it's hard to be speedy. Moist with bechamel, layered with textbook Bolognese and a sauce made of sweet-tart San Marzano tomatoes, it also comes with an excellent mixed green salad.
In fact, the range of lunch salads carries nary a clunker, from a creamy Gorgonzola-dressed Bibb lettuce version ($8) tagged with bits of crisp pancetta, to a lighter, lemony frisee salad ($9) hiding wedges of pink grapefruit, artichoke heart and curls of nutty pecorino.
Salads come with a length of grilled focaccia, very nice, which you'll see again, along with a ciabatta bread, on an array of panini. They can get messy: a grilled chicken breast sliding one way while the roasted red peppers and smoked mozzarella sneak the other, the slather of olive pesto and fluffs of ricotta adding to the degree of difficulty ($9). Buck up and grab another napkin, this stuff is delicious.
On my first lunch visit, the pulled pork with apple-fennel slaw piadina ($9) wasn't available. But I'm tenacious (and my office is only a block away): Another day, and another winning sandwich, the crunchy contrasted by plush strands of pork, the warm flatbread squishing it all into submission.
Lunch portions are nearly ample enough to feed two (or to take half for a late-afternoon pick-me-up). BellaBrava has added "value-minded" to its list of attributes.
The story a few doors down is a little different. It was one of the most anticipated openings last year, but it just didn't quite take. Blame the economy, or the restaurant's unfortunate locale as the site of a highly publicized crime. Or maybe it was the owners spreading themselves too thin between this new restaurant and the original flagship restaurant in Sarasota. The Table closed its doors in September, and co-owner Rafael Manzano called it quits.
Undeterred, general manager Joe Moledo and co-owner and chef Pedro Flores knew they had a winning formula: a hip, Miami-style vibe and a sleek bar scene paired with a menu of punchy South American fusion flavors. Longtime Tampa Bay area restaurateur Michael Stewart (Seven 17 South on S Howard Avenue in Tampa) took over ownership, and the Table started serving again in November.
But not all is status quo: The entrance has been moved to the lobby of the historic Alexander Building, and the couches at the back (an oh-so-South Beach touch that went over like a lead balloon) have been ditched to make room for a new, special-ordered communal table that will seat 12 when it arrives in the next month or so. The gauzy curtains are gone, and new blown-glass pendant lamps replace the old.
But the changes that make me most hopeful about the restaurant's future are on the menu. Overall, the price point has come down a bit, with no entrees tiptoeing past $30. A couple new tapas platters have been instituted to appeal to a table's grazing instincts: The "Americano mixto" ($19.95, serving three to four nicely) combines several new dishes, among them delicious ground chicken and shiitake "lollipops" (the spheres shiny with an amazing chipotle and Inca cola glaze), addictive red snapper fritters and stuffed oysters paired with rich crab meat and manchego fondue. Another platter, the "Peruana mixto" ($22.95), pairs some of the menu's old highlights with some new ones. The wahoo ceviche cones are back by popular demand, but now offered alongside Corona beer shrimp cocktail; a new mussel cocktail with heirloom tomato; and a bit of wahoo sashimi.
Tiny yucca rolls feature in the revamped menu's greatest comfort food dish, the rounds split open and stuffed with fontina and soft-braised short rib meat in a newfangled spin on grilled cheese ($7). And it may sound exotic, but the new passionfruit flan ($5.95) is all soothing texture and exciting flavor.
Both of these restaurants, anchors of sorts in downtown St. Petersburg's restaurant row, ring in the last year of this decade looking ready for whatever the future holds.
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.