Review: Gratzzi in downtown St. Pete offers standard Italian fare and one showstopper

ST. PETERSBURG

It would be easy to dismiss the new Gratzzi Italian Grille as a standard-issue Italian joint.

All the ingredients are there. The paninis. The pizzas. The pastas.

On one visit, we try the Lasag­na Bolognese ($10 at lunch, $13 at dinner) and the Eggplant Parmigiana ($7, $12) and find them to be exactly as they are at most houses of red sauce.

But then there is something else. Around the corner comes a little cart with a big wheel of cheese. A gentlemen navigates the cart carefully through the tight quarters and stops next to a table. A few ingredients go into a saute pan on a small burner. Sizzling and tossing ensue, then a splash of vodka — not Italian, but highly flammable — and a flash goes up over the pan. The contents are emptied into the hollowed-out cheese wheel, and the process is repeated. Now, all the ingredients in the cheese are tossed, put back in the saute pan for one more bit of pyrotechnics, and the dish is plated and served.

Technically, that dish serves one person. But everyone in the restaurant is watching.

And so, here, one extremely Italian ingredient that a lot of places overlook has been added. Drama.

The dish, the Cavatelli Bada Bing ($18), is a showstopper, calling to mind days when every dish at a fancy restaurant was prepared tableside. That's the pedigree of owner Dominic D'Angelo, who is the guy tossing the pasta here, not unlike the way he did in New York restaurants in his formative years.

Gratzzi was one of the original tenants of BayWalk but closed in the fall of 2009, roughly the same time as Pacific Wave closed on Second Street. Talk of Gratzzi moving into the Pacific Wave spot started almost immediately, but it took more than a year to happen.

Most of the menu made the trip, and a section of grilled items was added. Hence the "Grille" in the restaurant's name.

D'Angelo says the Bada Bing was introduced as an occasional special at BayWalk but was popular, so here it made the menu. In addition to the theatrics, the dish features housemade ricotta cavatelli, a cheesy, dumplinglike pasta, a ham from Northern Italy called prosciutto San Daniele and tomato, plus vodka for ignition. Tossing the pasta in the bowl of the hard cheese melts a layer, which becomes part of the dish and makes it extremely rich. Our waiter suggested sharing it as an appetizer. We went for it as an entree, and got through about half before discretion, and a desire for dessert, took over. The dish becomes all about the salty nuttiness of the cheese.

It's also a dish that can alter the timing of your meal. D'Angelo is training another server to prepare it, but right now, it's just him. And after other diners get a look at the dramatic preparation, they want one, too, and the orders pile up. Another tip: If you have a full head of hair, be careful that you don't use any flammable sprays on it before dinner. It just seems prudent.

From that new grill menu, the Land and Sea entree ($25) paired a filet mignon and a tuna steak. The beef came on a mushroom bed with a rich wine sauce, and the tuna in a very Asian preparation — a nod to Pacific Wave? — with ginger, wasabi and seaweed. The Asian flavors seemed random, but all the elements were well prepared. The Pappardelle alla Noce, wide pasta with a walnut cream sauce ($15), was also a fill-you-up-quick dish. The sauce was heavy on the cream, with Asiago, ham and mushrooms tossed in.

The lasagna and eggplant each had a similar problem: They were all about the sauce. The sauce was fine, but I like the pasta to be a bigger player in my lasagna. Which means I rarely like restaurant lasagna. So, hard to hold that against them.

Appetizers don't take a lot of chances but are fine. A choice of mussels or clams in a tomato-garlic broth ($9) is listed as "Posillipo," which suggests an area of Naples. "Pizzelle" ($7) aren't the waffle/cookies the name suggests, but miniature calzones, stuffed with mozzarella and pepperoni, then fried. Grissini lollipops ($8) are an attractive plate, with the long, crunchy breadsticks topped with a ball of creamy mascarpone, which is wrapped with prosciutto. It is delicious for one bite, then you just have the breadstick. There's no logical way to make that cheese last longer with the stick. I tried.

Desserts revert to the expected. Cannoli, tiramisu, creme brulee. If you want something sweet, they're there. But you've had them before.

But then the meal ends the way it should: A complimentary shot of limoncello hits the table with the bill.

Gratis? Grazie.

Jim Webster can be reached at jwebster@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.

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Gratzzi Italian Grille

211 Second St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 623-9037;
gratzzigrille.com

Cuisine: Italian

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 to 10 p.m.
Sunday

Details: AmEx, V, MC, Discover; full bar, reservations suggested, patio seating

Prices: Entrees $7 to $28, appetizers $4 to $12

Rating out of four stars:
Food: ★★ Service: ★★★ Atmosphere: ★★ 1/2

Overall: ★★

On the Web

Watch video of the preparation of the Cavatelli Bada Bing at video.tampabay.com.

Review: Gratzzi in downtown St. Pete offers standard Italian fare and one showstopper 03/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 22, 2011 12:19pm]

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