By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
TAMPA — Downtown Tampa is like a bear waking from a long hibernation, blinking, befuddled and, apparently, pretty hungry. Restaurants are popping up, joining Fly Bar and a stalwart few that have stood firmly optimistic about the city's impending downtown "renaissance." Bamboozle Cafe, L'Eden, Cafe Hey, Thai Corner, Malio's . . . and the list keeps growing. I've been meaning to check out Paninoteca and was galvanized finally by hearing they're taking the plunge in September and going from businessperson grab-and-go lunch spot to dinner house.
The menu will expand somewhat, with a beer and wine license pending, but even as it stands, downtown would benefit from dinners of such punchy, flavorful Mediterranean mezze, salads and warm panini. Owner Mary Coseski and staff make their own Italian bread and rosemary and onion focaccia, spreading out on wide stainless steel counters to assemble the lush building blocks like prosciutto, fresh artichokes, caponata, hummus and roasted eggplant.
Surrounding the bustle at these steel counters, a marble bar is crowded with downtown workers seated on backless stools; beyond them a handful of tables teem with diners, the sounds of lively conversation mixing with the clacking of plates being stacked and a soundtrack of frenetic techno. It is adorable but with big-city feeling, roughed-up concrete floors, funky green tile and fake chalkboards emblazoned with slogans I couldn't figure out.
The food is less inscrutable: A smoked turkey sandwich ($7.50) could feed several, its sweet, cinnamony caramelized onions deliciously haunting. It's the details that make Paninoteca memorable: A pressed panino of prosciutto and plush mozzarella ($7.50) gets perfectly ripe roma tomato and a broad slather of jewel-green and fragrant pesto aioli.
Shared meals could be assembled from the hot and cold mezze: Small lamb meatballs ($7.50) are studded with sweet dates and pine nuts and swathed in strained Greek yogurt; baba ghanoush ($5.50) and hummus ($5.50) are rich in tahini and garlic and paired with soft, warm pita. Kalamata olive and feta spreads (each $5.50) are too salty on their own but shine when nibbled alongside a lively fattoush salad ($8.50) — bell peppers, cukes, tomatoes and lettuce zipped with balsamic vinaigrette.
Paninoteca makes its own baklava ($3.75), itself a metaphor for these new downtown restaurants' optimism: It's sweet, a little nutty and hopefully not so flaky that it falls apart.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] 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.