December 1984. Fresh-faced Donatello opened about a mile from Malio's, a fat-cat destination that took up a whole Dale Mabry city block. Downtown Tampa and Hyde Park Village hadn't yet come into their own, and Dale Mabry was the place to be. Times have changed, the stretch of Dale Mabry closest to Kennedy having waxed and waned a number of times since then. It looks to be on the ascent again, with Grille One Sixteen poised to open and businesses like J. Alexander's doing big numbers.
But how about Donatello, that squat, nondescript building set right at the road, with its unglamorous landscaping and utilitarian glass bricks? 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 (and every female diner gets a long-stemmed beauty, sometimes even with a smooch from owners Guido and Gino Tiozzo).
The senior and junior Tiozzo exactingly oversee things, front and back. In the dining room, tuxedoed waiters have the assurance only longtime employment provides, whether that's guiding guests through the menu or whipping up a tableside Caesar (the best in town). And in the kitchen, after having a series of managing chefs, Gino now orchestrates things, a phalanx of longstanding cooks executing their part in the evening's proceedings.
Then there's the dining room. Guido's wife Alessandra spent a couple years painting the ceiling tiles a deep rose skimmed with gold leaf, and Italian painter Simone Bolla whiled away several long stateside trips creating oversized gilded paintings for the walls. Hanging canister chandeliers hide pale pink bulbs, and tablecloths are baby-girl pink. Is the overall effect contemporary? No. But it doesn't seem at all tired. It feels nostalgic, and frankly all that pink makes everyone's skin look killer.
The food is rigorously traditional Northern Italian, with just about everything I can think of made in house (all right, not the penne or other macaroni). The wine list is stunning, with a breadth of prices, regions, varietal, and large and small production represented. But wine costs a pretty penny, and the menu is in financial lockstep.
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.
The buffalo mozzarella on the caprese salad ($15.95) is top quality, the broth in the minestrone ($10.95) subtle and nurturing and clearly homemade. But it's not just that the Tiozzos are sticklers for ingredients. There's real skill in the kitchen, best seen in two signature dishes: housemade ricotta- and spinach-stuffed agnolotti ($24.95) and osso buco ($44.95), the latter sumptuously tender veal shank meat atop saffron rice, a bit of bone marrow sending it into the stratosphere.
Can you get in and out without breaking the bank? Share a salad (oh, the Caesar, $12.95), then share a pasta (try the punchy puttanesca, $24.95), and finish up with a shared dessert. They bring these tableside (the show-and-tell dessert tray, another thing that seems to have been lost in the passage of time), hawking a ricotta cheesecake, a chocolate mousse cake and maybe a napoleon (all $11.95). The ricotta cheesecake is my favorite, its berry coulis, chocolate sauce and whipped cream mere distractions from its satisfying richness.
At the time of this writing, the restaurant is getting perilously close to full for Valentine's Day (it remains a favorite amongst well-heeled South Tampa residents and lots of Tampa General doctors). That's all right. There are plenty of other days for romance in the year, and it's good to see a Tampa original still has the power to fan the flames.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.