YBOR CITY — Teatro inherited one of the most attractive restaurant spaces in Tampa. Perched atop Centro Ybor, the Big Easy runs through its veins. Wrought-iron balconies flank it, 20-foot windows showcasing the charms of La Septima below. A high, pressed-tin ceiling and thick columns lend the dining room historic refinement; exposed brick and generously portioned booths give it warmth. It has a long, inviting bar and lots of leftover appointments from when it was the ballroom of the historic 1912 Centro Espanol.
But this baby is big. Three hundred seats in a vast, airy space. That may explain previous tenant Big City Tavern's demise after seven years. Too many seats, in a neighborhood where attracting full-fledged adults has been tricky. There seems to be a renewed civic pride and enthusiasm in Ybor these days, with a number of fresh dining and nightlife projects aimed at grown-ups.
Opened in October, Teatro has owners with eyes wide open. Phil Zeltzar, executive chef at nearby Bernini for nearly seven years, and Bill Haines, who spent time at Bernini, Bern's and Bahama Breeze in recent years, have fashioned a concept that capitalizes on the historic setting while offering a contemporary menu that snubs no one. It's a greatest hits strategy: Frequent Asian, Mediterranean and even Middle Eastern fillips lend razzle-dazzle; the price point is such that it's not a post-Bacchanalian impulse buy, but not "special occasion" (entrees in the low $20s, sandwiches and salads that can tamp the bill down to about $10).
By and large, it's a menu that will go a long way to keeping those 300 seats filled. There are a few bobbles, and servers need to be schooled in what constitutes appropriate patter (they can be informal verging on kooky), but Ybor gains a lot with this new resident.
The single most exciting dish on two visits was an appetizer of tempura-battered portobello slices ($9) given a whisper of truffle oil and a flurry of pecorino shavings and paired with a housemade tomato jam that lingers on the palate, and in the memory, with hints of allspice, chilies and cumin. A "gateau" of roasted tomatoes, chevre and spinach ($8) reads like an appetizer-sized lasagna layered with Italian crespelle (crepes), very tasty. (Bill Haines won a master chef competition in Key West once with this dish.) And the house Caesar ($6) is in the increasingly popular style in which the romaine heart is left whole, grilled until just smoky-flavorful and beginning to wilt, then ladled with dressing and topped with its requisite cheese and croutons. Teatro's version benefits from an exceptionally strapping dressing, garlicky and rich.
The restaurant's best entrees are those with a comfort factor. There's meatloaf ($18), elevated by its sophisticated mix of beef, veal and pork (a little more pate-style than Mama's) and its red wine gravy and snappy little haricots vert. A roasted "Euro" chicken (this means a breast with drummette attached) is paired with braised short rib ($19), a mound of skin-on mashed spuds sporting little cubes of roasted beet and a buttery pool of creamed corn. The dish reflected obvious skill in the kitchen, although the short rib was so long-braised that its sauce was inky and its texture mushy. Lamb "osso bucco" ($22) proved a better braise with demi glace hinting at ginger and coriander, sweetened slightly with honey, the whole thing paired with olive-studded couscous.
In the not-so-successful camp, a grouper reuben ($9) was deluged with sauerkraut, overwhelming the mild fish, and a pretty, and innovative, banana creme brulee ($6) was marred by a cool-looking but flaccid waffle cookie bisecting it. Similarly, a chocolate bourbon bread pudding ($6) struggled under a lava flow of chocolate sauce. Easily remedied, even these less successful dishes are based on fundamentally sound ideas.
The impending Super Bowl, and Teatro's role as VIP location for Fox's Best Damn Sports Show, will serve to keep things jumping in coming weeks. But once Ybor settles back into business as usual, let's hope the neighborhood's newest dining "theater" can play to a full house.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs. tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.