ST. PETE BEACH
The well-oiled machine is a metaphor often trotted out for restaurants but, truth is, despite all that olive, vegetable and canola, there's seldom enough oil to get every squeak out. At Verducci Pizzeria & Trattoria you'll hear, "I need those salads" and "Are those my mussels?!" Servers and bussers are zooming at full tilt while partners Vinny Fortunato and Giovanni Scamardella unperturbedly slide pizzas and hot focaccia and rolls in the windows.
There's an elegance to the group effort. I like to think the owners' hometown of Monte di Procida, not far from Naples, has restaurants like this: bustling, intimate, without unnecessary razzle-dazzle and just plain good homemade Italian pizzas and pastas.
In the year and a half that it has been open (one of many restaurants Fortunato has owned over the years, from Seminole to Largo to downtown St. Petersburg), Verducci has been discovered by snowbirds and winter tourists. It ranks No. 1 in St. Pete Beach on TripAdvisor.
With no shortage of places to eat along Blind Pass or Gulf Boulevard, what stands out here is a commitment to making food from scratch. There's the dense almond chocolate tart and the lighter ricotta cheesecake; buttery garlic knots and calzones lush with ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan; even the creamy balsamic dressing on the included side salad is clearly made in house.
Everyone has a dream pizza style. Mine tends to be super thin, fairly abstemious on the sauce and toppings (like the new Wood Fired Pizza in St. Pete that I'll review in a couple weeks). Verducci's is a more generous vision. It's a puffy crust, pillowy but still with a good chew, with a fair amount of sauce, cheese and specialty toppings. A positano ($15.50 medium, $19.50 large) brought rounds of delicious sauteed eggplant, zucchini and roasted peppers, shakers of red chili flake and parm proffered promptly. A great pie, although leftovers had a sog factor because of all that the crust had to lift. (To reheat: high heat, dry pan on the stove. Seriously, You Tube it.) Calzones ($8.50) and strombolis ($8.50) are both huge and filling at Verducci, the accompanying marinara bright and lively. But I suggest sharing a pie or one of these so you can sample a pasta, appetizer and dessert as well.
One visit we were smitten by two big beef meatballs ($6.95) with seasoned ricotta in a rich tomato sauce, a treat when dabbed at with a warm hank of focaccia. Another time, marinated grilled veggies ($8.95) brought a generous plate of olives, crystalline wedge of parmesan, roasted red peppers and grilled zucchini: An appetizer in the true sense, it got us revved for the pastas to come.
A deep bowl of pasta tubes and freshly sauteed spinach gets a mantle of ricotta, mozzarella and cream in the Rigatoni alla Florentina ($13.95), both heavenly and heavy, as was another night's housemade gnocchi ($13.95) with a fresh cherry tomato sauce and more mozzarella and parm. A lighter pick was a pacchero pasta (like a big rigatoni; $16.95) topped with zucchini, cherry tomatoes, slivered garlic and nicely cooked shrimp. They know what they're doing with this stuff. Evening specials introduce some classic Italian heavy-hitters (osso bucco; lobster fra diavolo), but I'd have a hard time skipping pasta or pizza in the deal.
The dining room is pleasant, clean and uncontrived; the wine list short, familiar and well priced. Get cozy with a slice of ricotta cheesecake and you'll see that the passion at Verducci is for what's on the plate.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.