There's so much empty menu puffery. Food that is "hand selected" or "farm fresh" or "grilled to perfection." Eh, after a while these vacant modifiers fail to even register. So when I stopped in to Moscato's the first time for lunch and I heard "homemade pastas," "homemade bread" and "homemade meatballs," it didn't sink in. But really, Bill Helwig, in his tiny new shop where Margaret Guidicessi once sold her Bowl-A-Granola, is making a remarkable number of homey Italian dishes with his own two hands.
Mornings he makes long, crusty Italian loaves topped with toasty sesame seeds. Then he churns out semolina-flour spaghetti while a big pot of spunky marinara simmers. He fries eggplant and chicken cutlets, layers sweetened mascarpone with ladyfingers for tiramisu, and whisks balsamic with mild olive oil for his house vinaigrette. All of this he does behind the curtain of the mostly takeout concept. Stand at the counter and you'll hear him bustling back there, bursting through with your finished foam box.
He's had a restaurant of the same name in New Jersey since 1996, but came here with his wife, Yolanda Tristancho, who works at the insurance office next door. They are hoping to step up to a full sit-down restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg if Moscato's is successful. Italian-grandma staples at affordable prices certainly seems like a concept we can embrace.
Sandwiches come on that housemade bread, eggplant parm ($7.95, $9.95 as an entree instead of a sandwich) and chicken saltimbocca ($8.95, $11.95 as an entree instead of a sandwich) both nicely done. Thin, nutty layers of soft eggplant don't get too much breading, the tomato sauce a lively contrast and a molten layer of mozzarella and Parmesan a luxurious capper. In the saltimbocca, fresh sage leaves are tucked beneath paper-thin prosciutto and a mantle of provolone, stepping up the complexity.
Entrees mostly come with tomato-sauced penne, but homemade spaghetti can be substituted for an additional buck. Go on and substitute. The long noodles are at once tooth-resistant and velvety, a feat only possible with fresh noodles. Many dishes come with a delicious little side salad (also offered full-sized for $5.95, with grilled chicken for $6.95), simple but crisp and balanced with romaine, cucumber, sweet Craisins, sliced almonds and shaves of Parmesan, the vinaigrette assertive. This same vinaigrette can be tossed with a build-your-own salad ($5.95 plus 25 cents each additional topping), with ingredients from grilled skirt steak to hot cherry peppers to add drama to your lunch.
Thus far, Helwig is doing the bulk of his business at lunchtime, but dinner takeout is also a savvy option for those who are time-strapped and looking for a good deal.
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.