LUTZ — Trend alert: More and more menus are including selections that are boxed, starred, boldfaced, asterisked or indented. Maybe it means we all need more guidance than we used to. Or it could be that we, short attention spans that we have, like our text broken up into little, chunky, easily digested bits. These items are sometimes demarcated as "chef specialties," other times, "most popular." But, in the absence of these explanations, what are we to make of these emphasized menu items? They could be the best dishes but they also could be the ones they are really trying to move.
In the way that a menu item listed exuberantly as "fresh" makes me wonder about those with no freshness boast, these boxed/bolded dishes make me leery of the nonboxed ones. In two visits to the new Gathering Place in Lutz, darned if I didn't gravitate to those starred, boxed items every time. And mostly with promising results.
Lutz and Land O'Lakes have seemed underserved by independent restaurants. Splash, Mekenita Mexican Grille and the Vine do some exemplary work, and then there's a raft of Moe's, Chili's and the like. Into this slight dearth, Chris Fuller and his mom, Sandy, have sprung.
Open three months, the Gathering Place is a welcoming, casual spot with fairly straightforward decor (cute signs festoon the walls with funny expressions and aphorisms). It took over a space from a long defunct deli, with a long bar and an interesting cavelike private dining space.
Service is getting its bearings (early reports said servers were a little green), and the bartenders seem to have a passion for craft and local beer, although the wine list is fairly pedestrian.
Presided over by chef Michael Webster, the kitchen's focus is informed by a large wood-burning oven. The main attraction is pizza — the two pizzas in the starred boxes included a very appealing pesto version ($11.95) with spinach, local feta, scallions and pine nuts, all piled onto a thin crust with a nice crispy/chewy balance, as well as a pie topped by house-smoked chicken, caramelized onion, mozzarella and a tangy underlayer of barbecue sauce (called the Lutz Boy; $10.95).
With some trepidation, we branched out and tried a nonboxed item, a shrimp and spinach salad ($8.95; alright, it's because none of the salads got stars and boxes). Candied walnuts, goat cheese and cranberries were tossed with baby spinach in a sweet-mellow garlic vinaigrette, and then topped with warm, quick-sauteed fat shrimp. Given the complementarity of the flavors, it made me wonder why spinach isn't paired with shrimp more often.
The Gathering Place isn't going to win any awards for its smoked fish spread ($5.95) because, while the smoky flavor of the fish is good, its cap of slightly hard cheese doesn't do it any favors. Better is the mojo pulled pork sandwich ($8.95; a boxed item, I'm just saying), a Kaiser roll heaped with smoky pork moistened with a spunky cilantro-tinged mojo sauce, which comes with a choice of usual-suspect sides (fries, sweet potato fries, potato salad), as well as more unusual tostones, a good fit with the pork sandwich.
The Fullers have wisely pulled together a something-for-everyone kind of menu, with an ambience that moves from squarely family-oriented to a little more grownup lounge-y as the evening progresses. It aims to find a middle ground: There is some attempt to source local and sustainable foods (pasture-raised pork, local cheeses), but doesn't take itself so seriously that bacon and beer cheese fries ($5.95) would look out of place. In short, a place that Lutz and Land O'Lakes residents might be pleased to gather, even without any boxes, stars, boldface type or asterisks.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.