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For a romantic Valentine's dinner, try somewhere off the beaten path

With Valentine's Day fast approaching, it's conceivable that you've had the wherewithal to carve out time for a delicious tryst with your sweetie. If you're like many of us, you haven't quite nailed down where to go. Reservation books are filling up at all the usual suspects (Bern's, Oystercatchers, the View at CK's, Melting Pot, Yacht Starship Dining Cruises, etc.), so it may be time to think outside the box.

Head back to the place you had your first date, or stay home and cook a romantic meal (enlist the aid of Mazzaro's or Fresh Market for great ready-mades). Many caterers will put together a meal a deux, and Gulf Coast beaches conveniently feature the sherbet-hued sun setting in the West.

Or try one of these. While lesser known, all are Cupid's bull's-eyes — some dark, some intimate, some candlelit, some full of surprises.

Pia's Trattoria: (3054 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport; (727) 327-2190). Owners Pia and Tom Goff closed the nearby Water Witch in Gulfport and incorporated that restaurant's excellent breakfast menu into the lineup at Pia's. Imagine it: that wild back garden on a pretty morning, some hand-holding, and 14 different filled Italian crespelle, from sweet to savory. Special for Valentine's Day, look for Torta della Nonna, a pastry shell filled with custard and chocolate and topped with pine nuts, or Pia's Italian cookies and Italian breads served with cappuccino made with imported Segafredo espresso beans.

NoHo Bistro: I visited NoHo Bistro (1714 N Armenia Ave., Tampa; (813) 514-0691) for the first time on New Year's Eve. A charmingly snug spot painted with Parisian street murals, it seems more of a coffeehouse by day. For special occasions, though, the kitchen offers prix fixe menus. Reservations required, on Feb. 14 chef Christopher Deeds has two offerings, a three-courser for $60 and five courses for $75. The former includes choices like pan-seared crimson snapper with saffron vanilla sauce or filet mignon with mushroom ragout. The latter may start with lump crab cakes and Meyer lemon aioli or a spring pea and leek tartlet. Both menus are paired with wines from southern France.

The wine lover should head to Beaune's Wine Bar (pronounced "bones," 2009 N 22nd St., Tampa; (813) 241-8587). With a Wine Spectator "best of award of excellence," it still features entrees starting at $15. Pick a bottle from the wine shop's 1,200 selections, add $10 and drink it in the cafe with a plate of cheeses, salamis, prosciutto and pate.

The Don CeSar, how obvious. But I'm not talking about the Maritana Grille, or even brunch in the King Charles Room. Head to the Sea Porch (3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach, (727) 360-1884, they validate self parking) at the Don CeSar with its indoor/outdoor seating. Grab a dozen Malpeque or Blue Point oysters and a glass of champagne, then head outside for the sunset over the gulf. For Valentine's Day, the more casual restaurant at the Don offers its regular seafood-heavy menu (with its signature fried green bean appetizer), plus a few luxurious specials for the occasion.

There are lots of off-the-beaten-path routes to his or her heart. The view at the Columbia on the Pier is nice, the lighting sufficiently moody at Gulfport's La Cote Basque. Head to Tampa Bay Brewing Co. for dinner and then follow up with a comedy show at the Improv; visit Dunedin Brewery and then take a romantic walk over to the Dunedin Causeway. Keep thinking — sometimes doing something unexpected can be the most romantic of all.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com 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.

For a romantic Valentine's dinner, try somewhere off the beaten path 02/04/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 8, 2010 10:01am]
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