PALM HARBOR — In general, longtime restaurants have a recognizable steadiness, an unflappable confidence that the train won't jump the tracks. Conversely, new restaurants tend to have a perceptible aura of drama that sometimes dips close to panic. Positano Ristorante Italiano, open less than a year, feels like a much older restaurant.
In the same shopping center as Mystic Fish and Harr's Surf and Turf Market, Positano is a smallish, affordable and familiar Italian restaurant, purveying pastas, veal scallopini dishes and those frozen, chocolate-covered Italian desserts (tartufo, bomba) that make everyone giddy. The resident steady hand here is co-owner/chef Massimo Sabetti, who previously owned two Italian restaurants in Spring Hill and whose family has owned Rossi in New Port Richey for 24 years. Rossi is more pizzeria than trattoria, appealing to Pasco County families, while Positano feels a little more date-night, sans pizza.
Sabetti and partner Marc Delape inherited the space from another Italian restaurant, Da Tullio, but set about overhauling the location. Simple new tables and chairs, an expanded bar area with granite counters, new lighting, textured walls and a pretty private dining room improved the space. Massimo and two cooks who've been with his family for 15 years took up residence in the kitchen. In all, Positano exudes quiet competence.
It's nothing you haven't seen before, but plates are balanced and tasty, pacing is smooth and service is attentive, there's a full bar (rare in Italian restaurants), and no one is going to leave hungry.
Pastas are the big bargain ($10-$16), each served with salad or soup (one night a delicious spinach egg drop) and crusty Italian bread that comes with a tray of tiny pecorino cubes and squiggles of roasted red pepper, over which jewel-green olive oil is poured. The included salad is snappy with mixed greens and fresh veggies, eliminating the need to spend an additional $7 for the house Caesar salad, an unremarkable example of its breed (more anchovy, more garlic, more lush egg yolk, I say).
Still, if you need an appetizer before dinner, two huge breaded rectangles of mozzarella ($7) come crisp and molten-centered, served with a ramekin of slow-simmered marinara.
That marinara is exemplary of the kitchen's tomato sauce style — whether it's on a textbook chicken Parmesan ($14) or anchoring a spicy shrimp fradiavolo over linguine ($14), it's a deeply reduced, long-cooked version that's homey and Old World. A little of it comes dabbed on a side order of four meatballs ($4), which themselves taste like the handiwork of someone's Italian nonna. Sauteed baby spinach ($4), buttery and heady with garlic, was our other favorite accompaniment.
Veal dishes, while not as generously portioned as the pastas (although they come with a side order of pasta, in addition to the soup or salad), are still fairly priced (most $16). Our favorites were the simple lemony piccata dotted with shallot and capers, or the saltimbocca alla romano ($17) with layers of baby spinach in addition to the prosciutto and mozzarella.
Positano's wine list is short but covers a lot of ground: Chianti classico, a couple of splurgy amarones and a brunello, and then it's on to a few mega-production wines of California and South America. The management seems to be more enthusiastic about desserts, offering a dozen options, many architectural pyramids, cubes and perfect spheres of mousse or gelato, enrobed in chocolate or with a molten caramel center. In some ways these flights of fancy (such as the "magic cube" with its hard chocolate shell splintering to reveal chocolate mousse and white chocolate mousse and a cherry center, $5.95) might seem at odds with the down-to-earth tomato sauces, manicotti and baked ziti that the kitchen does so well. But they are yet another example of how Positano's easy competence makes it all hang together gracefully.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found 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.