Times Food Critic
CLEARWATER — Between 1880 and 1921, more than 5 million southern Italians poured into the United States, popularizing pasta almost immediately. In the 1890s, Franco American started canning spaghetti, and by 1927 Kraft had jumped on the Italian bandwagon, producing grated Parmesan cheese in that signature green shaker. Consumption of pasta in this country rose from zero pounds per capita in 1900, to less than 4 pounds in 1929, and to upwards of 20 in the past few years.
But let's face it, in the way General Tso's chicken would dismay the average resident of mainland China, many culinary misdeeds have been committed in the name of Italian food in this country. This may be because it's perceived to be straightforward, practically child's play. For many of us, our first self-made meal went like this: Boil water; dump in spaghetti; heat sauce. Maybe it involved throwing a noodle at the wall to check for doneness (honey, if it sticks, it's way past done), perhaps it entailed a shake from that green Kraft can. What could be simpler?
In the past month I've been to three new Italian restaurants that fumbled on the fundamentals. The one that bums me out the most is Pssghetti's, opened at the beginning of February by Frank and Anne Mongelluzzi. They have another, smaller restaurant in Blowing Rock, N.C. That one gets fairly high marks for no-pretentions Italian staples.
Their Clearwater venture was a long time coming, causing drivers on U.S. 19 to crane their necks at the new lively paint job and signage at the old Rio Bravo spot. The concept is this: an open-all-day Italian market to compete with Mazzaro's Italian Market in St. Petersburg, but with a sit-down, mid-priced pastas-and-pizza menu. The interior is like a slick community theater production of Shakespeare. It's a moody, sun-baked piazza with vivid murals of pastoral Italian countryside.
But before the Montagues and Capulets bury the hatchet and break bread together, some of the details need to be eagle-eyed.
There's an open kitchen, with lots of servers hanging out in the pass-through. So why are so many hot dishes served lukewarm, and so many cold dishes going limply room temp? Server training has a long way to go, and the kitchen seems too willing to send things out not quite right. That's all new-restaurant stuff, what you expect to get hashed out in the first few months.
The signature spaghetti and meatballs ($12.99) features overcooked pasta, ho-hum red sauce and two huge, dry meatballs. There are better things: fried calamari ($8.99) are tender and greaseless rings and tentacles that come with a red pepper mayo or house marinara; the caprese salad contains good fresh mozzarella and wedges of tomato along with dressed greens and a chiffonade of basil.
But from there, it's careful navigating. Pizza (smalls around $8.95) crusts lack flavor, and can vacillate between overcooked and pallid. Classic tomato-garlic-balsamic bruschette ($6.99) are kneecapped by not being pick-up-able (the topping doesn't fit neatly on the toasts, and there's a mysterious pile of chopped romaine involved).
I will say that the meat lasagna ($16.99) is hearty and generous, roughly the size of my first car. And a radiatore pasta ($22.99) studded with shrimp, crabmeat, bay scallops, tomato concasse and sauteed spinach in a rich cream sauce is satisfyingly rib-sticking.
Pinellas County is awash in mid-priced Italian restaurants all eager to serve piccata, marsala and con vongole. These are dishes that made their way to this country in the DNA of hardworking folk who knew how to alchemically finesse humble ingredients. It's as that great Italian Leonardo da Vinci said: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." Let's just pretend he was talking about red sauce.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Read her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.