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Highlights from Laura Reiley's 2012 Tampa Bay Times restaurant reviews

2012 is almost toast. • If anyone should know that it's Tampa Bay Times restaurant critic Laura Reiley, who has had her share of toast (and lots of other kinds of bread) this year. • Here are some highlights excerpted from her 2012 reviews, good day-after-Christmas reading for everyone who has had enough home-cooked family-favorites for a while. • We just hope you're not too stuffed to eat vicariously through her reviews once again.

Donatello, South Tampa

With an eye toward Valentine's Day, I went to see how Tampa's original romantic restaurant fares after 27 years.

Wow, the blush is not off the rose.

As someone who eats out 200 times a year, I can count on a couple of fingers the places with $40 entrees that are worth $40. And I realize $40 for an entree is beyond some people's means. But if you are inclined to splurge, Donatello's food is a good value. The linguine with pesto (a blink-worthy $27.95) is not the biggest bowl of pasta, but it's perfect — heady with fresh basil, just the right amount of garlic and cheese, spot-on al dente noodles. You will finish the last bite, daintily dab luminous green oil from your lips, and sigh.

Feb. 7, 2012

Boca Kitchen Bar Market, Tampa

The new Boca Kitchen Bar Market isn't satisfied with a little local lettuce and some backyard herbs. Owned by Gordon Davis (mastermind of Ceviche and Ciro's), Boca employs two "runners" who head to Davis' Lake Hiawatha Farm in Odessa for veggies, to Nature Delivered in Brooksville for pork, Lake Meadows Natural in Ocoee for chicken and duck eggs, and a number of other farms. Meanwhile, Suncoast Food Alliance pulls up a van to the back door and unloads produce from farms in Manatee and surrounding counties. A blackboard lists the daily fish and the boat captain who brought it in.

The locavore fervor wouldn't mean much if what Boca did with all this bounty was ho-hum. Executive chef Ted Dorsey and chef de cuisine Chad McColgin are brilliant.

Feb. 29, 2012

Wimauma taco roundup (with photographer Lara Cerri)

We set out with big hunger and small bills to go sampling.

There's one thing the unincorporated Hillsborough County enclave, founded in 1902, has in reckless abundance: excellent tacos. For the 4,000 or so residents (70 percent of which identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino in the last census), as well as visitors who make their way east off the Sun City Center exit on Interstate 75, the delicious options approach double digits.

Onward past a charming yellow house with its front yard given over to hundreds of rose bushes in full bloom, we hit what may have been our favorite find of the day, Taqueria Guanajuato. Long before all the recent food truck furor, there this little trailer sat, enlivened with a whimsical mural by Tampa artist Juan Luis Colon, a corrugated metal overhang providing shade for the assembled supplicants. Gorditas seem to be the order of the day, with a group of Sun City Center nurses strongly recommending the nopales (prickly pear cactus pads).

April 11, 2012

Ciccio & Tony's, St. Petersburg

Many of the people ... employed over the years at the growing Ciccio and Tony's empire, seem ripped, or at least maniacally gym-toned. Dating back to its earliest days in South Tampa in 1996, health and fitness have been a part of the Ciccio culture.

All foods are created equal on the menu, with sections for salads, wraps, bowls and stir-fries, pizzas and quesadillas, with options to customize nearly all of it to adhere to dietary restrictions.

The trick behind the success of Ciccio's food has always been that it's not abstemious: There are big flavors and lots of color and snap.

June 27, 2012

Black Pearl, Dunedin

The go-to restaurant for fancy dining ...

The culinary aesthetic is what we used to refer to as continental, a term that seems to have grown murky as the "continent" in question has morphed into dozens of discrete cuisines.

There are sumptuous upholstered chairs and tabletop rice-paper lanterns that cast soft, flattering light. Red roses punctuate expanses of white linen. You get the picture — it's where you go to get moony-eyed over dessert.

For dessert you need to be a long-term thinker: The molten-center chocolate cake ($9.95) and puff-pastry topped apple tarte Tatin ($11.95) require 20 minutes to prepare, so order early. For my money it's the licorice ice cream ($6.95) all the way, the deep anise scent softened in creamy, sweet lushness.

July 18, 2012

Cello's Charhouse, Safety Harbor

Susan (Cello) is the chef, Ellen (Young) presides in the front of the house, and both of them have the kind of outsized personalities you find on Comedy Central or among the best Christie's auctioneers. They are chatty and funny and warm, which somehow serves to draw customers of a similar ilk.

Pick a protein, all of it purchased fresh that morning at the store and minimally messed with (not even salt and pepper) before being thrown on the grill.

With it comes a lot ... flatbread triangles and a bowl of beer cheese soup ... a generous and crunchy house salad ... fresh cheese ravioli. Simple but quirky, this assemblage surrounds your main event.

Cello's reads more like going to dinner at a kooky friend's house, one who isn't too shy to charge you a fair price for her labors (cash only). And because the shopping is done each morning, reservations are nearly a must, preferably made early in the day. It may not be for everyone, but in a sea of cookie-cutter restaurants, Cello's idiosyncratic tune sticks with you.

Aug. 1, 2012

Samba Room, Tampa

The glamorous new project of seasoned restaurateurs Gordon Davis, Kevin Enderle and Mike Bleser (who also own Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club and Boca Kitchen Bar Market, both of which have garnered national praise) ... the Samba Room is something a little different, slick "nuevo Cubano" with gutsy but moderately priced Latin-inspired food and suave cocktails that incorporate South American tapas, traditional Brazilian dishes and rodizio meats, Caribbean small plates and even modern Spanish cuisine.

(After dinner), you can take your party into Samba Room's bar for live Latin music, a little dancing and perhaps just one more caipirinha.

Aug. 29, 2012

,Parts of Paris, Safety Harbor

This year, seven of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, voted on each year by more than 800 food and wine professionals from around the world, were French. But here in the Tampa Bay area, French food is rare.

It's not inherently difficult food to make, but it requires classical training and an eye to detail. A newcomer in Safety Harbor is knocking it out of the park, my favorite find in many months of dining. Parts of Paris (all right, I'm not a fan of the name, too slasher movie) is the project of Chris Orrung and his partner, Jonas Ahlgren. Both are Swedish.

Parts of Paris has the best creme brulee ($8) I've had in years, crisp top giving way with a tap to the lush custard below.

May 9, 2012

,Edison: food+drink lab, South Tampa

The celebrated former chef at Bern's and SideBern's (Jeannie Pierola) is having a whale of a time at her new place, riffing on contemporary trends in the culinary world, freestyling on current fetish ingredients and faddish techniques, and all at a price point that makes Edison an everyday prospect for most Tampa Bay diners.

Menu categories would stymie Thomas Edison and probably his buddy Henry Ford, too. "Spark," "cold start," "soluble or solid," "constants," "C8H10N4O2" — that last one means caffeine — but the basic idea is some things are hot, some are cold, some are a little bigger, all of them are totally mix and match, suited to a shared noshing approach.

Plates are packed with elements, sometimes in perfect harmony and sometimes verging on over-the-top.

Sept. 9, 2012

,Oxford Exchange, Tampa

Vacant for decades, it was originally a horse stable. If the horses could see it now: marble and brass, soaring ceilings, flickering gas lamps and a black-and-white checkered floor that attract hungry souls like moths to a flame.

The 24,000-square-foot Oxford Exchange serves only breakfast and lunch, with no alcohol (a condition of sharing a parking lot with the church across the street).

Oxford Exchange seems to be a labor of love, a box of chocolates proffered affectionately toward Tampa's dining public.

This newcomer has knocked Tampa for a loop with its sheer style. It has already shown it can juggle diverse elements, from bookstore to private parties in the evenings, with servers who are adept at managing some serious crowds.

Oct. 31, 2012

Coming up

On Jan. 17 in Weekend, look for Laura Reiley's roundup of the Tampa Bay area's top 25 exciting — yet affordable — restaurants (and that includes food trucks).

Highlights from Laura Reiley's 2012 Tampa Bay Times restaurant reviews 12/25/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 3:30am]

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