It was like that recurring dream. Not the one where you star in the school play in your underpants. The other one, where you're taking the final exam for a course you didn't attend. We squinted at the one-page menu. We panicked. It was all in Italian, no subtitles. Pesce, that's fish, right? But what's a cappesante?
Restaurateur Spartaco Giolito was gentle with us, patiently translating the whole menu. Like students cramming for the big one, we mouthed the words along with him ("dentice, dentice, remember that's the snapper").
By our second visit, Giolito had tired of his ambitious language immersion program. Leave that to Rosetta Stone. He'd reprinted the menu at his new Osteria Natalina, English translations trailing the Italian dishes.
That's what you can do when you're at the helm of your own tidy ship — shift direction to accommodate subtle currents and winds. Giolito is one of Tampa's warmest, most lovable Italian restaurateurs. And he's back. He sold his eponymous restaurant on MacDill Avenue a while back to pursue a culinary tour guide idea. The economy put a monkey wrench in that plan and he has returned to his original Spartaco's space on MacDill.
Named for his mother, Natalina, it's something new. As the Italian word "osteria" suggests, it is a more casual spot — a shorter menu and emphasis on daily specials; no bottle of wine over 30 bucks. Seafood dishes feature prominently, reflecting the food of his coastal Italian hometown of Rimini. In other words, a more rustic, less expensive eatery in the Italian osteria tradition.
It seems perfect for these times. A comforting bowl of pasta e fagioli ($5.95), steam rising, meal-like in its crowd of beans and veggies, followed by a generous bowl of delicious housemade strozzapreti ($15.50), Spartaco's best pasta dish. Then, the cannoli ($5.95). How can you not feel nurtured, your spirits buoyed? The strozzapreti is "Bel Sit" style, ostensibly named for the famous osteria in Milan. In this case, it means a refined red or white sauce studded with mixed seafood, the sauce leaking into the seam of the long, rolled cavatelli-like noodles (strozzapreti means "priest choker," no consensus on the origin of the name).
Giolito will make the strozzapreti with sausage if you want, also very tasty, but the restaurant's best dishes are clearly from the sea. Decadent mixed seafood lasagna ($11.50) is lush with ricotta and nubs of shrimp and scallop. Risotto ($14.50) is shaded by a jet of squid ink, the squid getting their comeuppance as tender rings and baby clams bolster the arborio.
Giolito (whose presence in the dining room is vitally important — thus far, the rest of his servers pale by comparison in knowledge and people skills) has gone one step further to lure the financially timid among us. There's a section of the menu for "nibblers," most dishes around $8.50. A bowl of open-wide mussels and clams nestled in a red, brodetto-like stew for $9.50? That's a stimulus package.
The strip mall restaurant space has always been homey and charming, especially nice when crowded with boisterous families. It's not fancy, but seems somehow Old World as Giolito banters with a guest or pours wine into the funny house wine glasses (Giolito's mom's name doubles as the pour line).
He may have to add a couple more meat dishes to appease the landlubber, but that's the beauty of Giolito's setup. He can tinker and adjust to ensure Osteria Natalina settles gracefully into the landscape of beloved South Tampa restaurants.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.