Restaurant years are like dog years. Five years in and all paws are firmly planted in middle age. Staying youthful requires a commitment to move with the times, to revise and reinvent oneself from time to time. Pelagia at the Renaissance Tampa Hotel International Plaza opened in 2004 with young superstar Fabrizio Schenardi at the helm in the kitchen.
In this notoriously peripatetic career, Schenardi has stayed, getting even more ensconced when it was announced at the end of 2009 that he'd been promoted from executive chef to "CheF & B," an utterly made-up title that means part chef, part food and beverage director. Those in the business waggled an eyebrow at this. Yeah, more responsibility and a new title, but probably less time to let those creative juices flow.
He has defied skeptics by launching new lunch and dinner menus in May that reflect a respect for longtime fans (don't worry, the crunchy meat-stuffed olives are still there, and the veal with the Parmesan crust remains) but also a zesty enthusiasm for new flavor combinations and presentations. Schenardi has recently spearheaded a Slow Food chapter in the Tampa Bay area (the aims of this eco-gastronomic organization are "to counteract fast food and fast life"), so his affection for traditional and regional foods is self-evident. Still, many new menu items seem geographically broader, moving beyond his beloved Italy and toward a more Cal/Med aesthetic.
Located on the ground floor of the hotel, Pelagia remains just about the prettiest restaurant in Tampa. It had a little facelift a few years ago, but the open kitchen, vivid colored-glass chandeliers and ancient-looking tile have conveyed serious Mediterranean drama since Day 1. The service staff can be overly wide-eyed and gushing about Schenardi's food, but in general servers are efficient and diligent in their rounds.
At lunch, an "express menu" gets business people in and out with a handful of choices ($10, including tea or soft drink) that can be served quickly. Newcomers to that list include a lovely turkey and grilled zucchini panini with a pale green basil aioli that's dazzling and a more hedonistic four-cheese rigatoni with a foil of sauteed chicken. On the regular lunch menu, new wraps have been added: Noontime is especially blessed by the warm chicken wrap ($12) with molten brie and a contrasting apple/onion compote (served with to-die sage-scented chips), and the rock shrimp salad with arugula and avocado ($13) brings a great range of flavors to a lighter option.
Dinner, which is when the dining room shines most elegantly, is best begun with a shared platter of stuzzichini, (Italian for snacks). Schenardi has kept a fairly stable lineup, from the aforementioned stuffed, fried olives ($5) to tender octopus marinated in a vinaigrette dotted with garlic and mint ($6). A selection of four ($23) comes heaped on a generous platter with a sprinkling of olives, toasted almonds and sliced salamis. Use your hands, swooping in to the bread basket for snappy grissini (made locally by Franco Barlettai at Delizie in a machine he designed).
Of the new dinner additions, shrimp cured in lemon oil and tucked into thin tagliatelle along with a ragout of fresh corn, tomatoes and toasted pine nuts ($25) may be the biggest wowza, but the new duck confit antipasto ($12), which gets a peppery arugula salad, fried green tomato and artichoke hearts, showcases some wonderful ideas, not the least of which is a vinaigrette that sings with the mellow, almost orangelike tang of Meyer lemon. That kind of flavor is brought to bear again on a new duck entree ($28), a pan-seared mallard breast, extra crispy skin, which sits atop an orange-balsamic glaze adjacent to a disc of gutsy ratatouille. This ain't your grandpa's duck a l'orange.
Despite his added responsibilities, and even his commitment to making the world slow down a little, Schenardi is near the top of Tampa's chef standouts. It is his talents that have allowed Pelagia to so gracefully reach maturity.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Read her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.