Even before the advent of Twitter, there were pop-up restaurants.
The concept of a limited-time-only dining experience is a big deal around the country, and there has been one thriving around the corner from the retail jungles of Brandon for nearly a decade.
That may seem a bit oxymoronic, as the pop-up is meant to come and go in days or weeks, invading a prepared space to keep start-up costs minimal and closing before it gets boring. Then repeat.
Della's After Dark used that start-up formula. Then just made sure it never got boring.
In 1989, Beverly DellaGrotta opened Della's Delectables, a lunchtime sandwich spot with a penchant for baked goods, in a small strip a couple of blocks off the bustle of Brandon Boulevard. Her son, Alex, got into cooking and moved off to work in kitchens in Colorado and New Zealand.
But after Sept. 11, 2001, the DellaGrottas decided to find a way to work a little closer together.
They hatched a plan. Mom had a restaurant, but it wasn't being used during dinner hours. Son could come home and run a dinner-only restaurant in the Della's spot. The infrastructure already was in place. The rent already was being paid.
So, three nights a week curtains go up to obscure the deli counter and soda machine, tablecloths are unfurled and lights are dimmed to create the proper ambience.
Artists set up near the entrance. Some nights it's a tight trio jamming instrumentals, other nights it's a woman belting out classics backed by iTunes. They provide the atmosphere. But chef Alex DellaGrotta is the artist who has kept this concept working so long.
The plates have a sophisticated elegance, with presentation that manages to somehow be over the top without going too far.
Take the appetizer of house-made chorizo meatballs ($7). A ball of sausage wrapped around a boiled quail egg, it's like a Scotch egg on a Mexican vacation. But for plating, the spheres are cut in half, displaying concentric layers of chorizo, egg white and yolk, then lined up until the plate feels like a Dalí installation. A spicy fra diavolo sauce turns up the heat.
A pate-smooth serving of duck rillette ($12) is plated in a small disc, with a fan of crostini across the plate and a short stack of tart, pickled vegetables on the side to punctuate the unctuousness of the duck.
We ordered the zucchini fritters ($7) with a pretty clear idea of what was to come, and we were totally wrong. The shredded squash was incorporated into a batter that highlighted its flavor and minimized its otherwise nonfritter-friendly texture. A sweet tomato sauce and a spicy-cool yogurt covered all the bases.
There seems to be no fear in mixing cuisines on a plate, and it worked every time. An entree of duck breast ($20) has the duck nicely seared to medium-rare while achieving a crisp skin. It's flavored with Chinese five spice, sauced with a wine from Portugal, and accompanied by onions cooked in a French method and corn pudding straight out of the American South. And every element worked together.
A nicely bitter arugula pesto was a change from tradition on a rack of lamb ($25), still rosy in the middle after just the right amount of time on the grill.
Each of the fish dishes we tried probably spent a little too much time on the grill. The black grouper ($19) and the red snapper ($18) maybe just a little, the mahimahi ($18) a good bit. Each of those come with a smart side: the grouper with a Mediterranean couscous, the snapper with creamy mascarpone orzo pasta, and the mahi with sausage-spiked grits. The fish were fine, the sides were fun.
Service is friendly, and was especially helpful on a night we decided to pair glasses of wine with each course. I was initially suspicious that our server was a little too agreeable with our picks, that maybe she wasn't being as critical as we wanted her to be. But then she steered us away from our first pick on a later course toward a chianti that worked well.
The music is more than background, but only as invasive as the dinner crowd wants it to be. Sometimes, in the area where people stand in line to order sandwiches at lunchtime, there has been dancing.
I'm no aficionado of jazz, but here is one thing I learned after multiple visits: Every jazz performer seems to keep The Girl from Ipanema in the repertoire.
Jim Webster can be reached at email@example.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.