Thursday, April 19, 2018
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Review: Expanded Ciccio's in St. Petersburg has plenty of space for healthful eats

ST. PETERSBURG

James Lanza and Jeff Gigante are kind of big dudes (Jeff's surname might even suggest "giant"). Both of them, and many of the people they have employed over the years at their growing Ciccio and Tony's empire, seem ripped, or at least maniacally gym-toned. Dating back to its earliest days in South Tampa in 1996, health and fitness have been a part of the Ciccio culture. • The original South Tampa location begat a wrapperia in WestShore Plaza, then a New Tampa location (originally called Ciccio & Tony's and now called Ciccio Lodge) in Tampa Palms in 1998 and a tiny St. Petersburg outpost in 2002. There have been other locations and even other concepts (Daily Eats, Lime, Water, the Lodge), but the core vision of all Ciccio restaurants has always been: mid-priced, unfussy food that aims to provide healthy options for those eschewing carbs, forgoing meat, snubbing gluten or forfeiting fat.

On April 30, the St. Petersburg location, in a small endcap spot in the NorthEast Publix shopping center, closed. Annexing some of the adjacent Blockbuster space, it reopened May 14 with 1,000 square feet added to its original 1,400.

Lanza spearheaded the redesign, doubling the number of seats inside and adding patio dining and a long bar. It's a visually appealing space with industrial-looking open ductwork painted a vibrant green, green booth seats and bar stools and photo murals of lush grass and huge daisies.

In short: It's fresh and fun, an appropriate backdrop for a new menu that hits contemporary tastes just right.

Perusing the menu is an interesting study in what we know or suspect about nutrition science. Ciccio doesn't offer traditional appetizers (read: fried stuff that involves cheese and dips). You can get chips and salsa if you must, but it doesn't even appear on the menu. Instead, all foods are created equal on the menu, with sections for salads, wraps, bowls and stir fries, pizzas and quesadillas, with options to customize nearly all of it to adhere to dietary restrictions (you can sub gluten-free pasta, or up your protein quantity and minimize carbs, or swap out farro for white rice).

Some years back, Ciccio diners might have been talking about South Beach or Atkins, more recently about the Mediterranean diet. To me, it reads like California cuisine circa 2012. Ciccio has trended toward one-bowl meals with a base of brown rice or fat Asian noodles acting as a forum for crowds of veggies and a lean protein. Bowls and stir fries are chopstick-appropriate, but that doesn't mean they are all Asian-inflected. One of my faves is a spicy Brazilian bowl ($9; what Ciccio's used to call a chop-chop), with spicy chopped chicken, black beans, chopped tomato, avocado and romaine all tossed together with yellow rice, a bit of cheddar and a swirl of sour cream (plus a "dipping sauce" of your choosing, salsa being the best one in this case).

The trick behind the success of Ciccio's food has always been that it's not abstemious: There are big flavors and lots of color and snap. This location's new menu has drawn several of its bowls from the South Tampa Water location, the best of which is the hot and crunchy tuna ($10), which brings a base of sticky rice topped with seared ahi slices, tempura-battered onion, cuke, jicama, scallion and avocado, with just enough Sriracha punch and a drizzle of low-sodium soy so that the whole thing comes alive. It's a great dish, matched by its sibling the tuna poki ($10) which features lively flavors of ginger and citrusy ponzu.

Many of the bowl ingredients can be tucked into a wrap or plopped onto the new tortilla "flats" — which in the month of June have boasted a very reasonable price tag of $4 and $5 (and on Tuesday nights an eye-popping $2). Share a couple of these flats and a salad (the tricolor is the most exciting, with mixed greens, toasted walnuts and crisp apple with a gorgonzola-shallot dressing, $6) and a meal is affordable, satisfying and healthful.

And while it's not the place to get a big gooey dessert (why wreck your streak?), the remodeled location offers nice oatmeal cookies ($1) and s'mores brownies ($3) made by one of the servers.

Managing operating partner Patty Miles has assembled a great staff of effervescent young people, quick to laugh and quicker to grab you another beer (from a short list of familiar and well-priced beers and wines). With a booming to-go business and regular catering gigs, the reopened St. Petersburg location has a lot of moving pieces, but a sound concept and agile staff keep things wonderfully on track.

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.

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