TAMPA — The Lodge Restaurant & Bar's food is funny. Not funny "strange." Funny "ha ha." • It's got a wink and a nudge on every one of its menu's seven pages, and a couple of knee-slappers. • There's a Twinkimisu ($5), a Twinkie dressed up as tiramisu. Get it? There are "American sushi" rolls that include the following: the Home Run ($6), all-beef hotdog, sauerkraut and crispy toasted bun strips with ketchup and mustard puree. • I repeat: in sushi. • Tater Tots feature heavily (called Tatters, doubtless to fend off the copyright ire of Ore-Ida), and there are kooky spins on TV dinners (pick an entree and three sides, served in fun, sectioned melamine, not the sad, ye-old-timey foil trays).
The Lodge is the newest venture from Jeff Gigante and the Ciccio & Tony's crew. These are professionals, with many a successful restaurant under their belts (beyond Ciccio's locations, there are Lime, Water and Daily Eats, all in Tampa). Which is a good thing, because this location has been home to 42nd Street, Chateau SoHo, SoHo Bistro and Manny's Bistro in the past couple of years.
It's easy to get spooked with such a Disaster Cafe location, even if it's across the street from always-mobbed MacDinton's. But they've got a formula: super-attractive servers, a long list of South Tampa well-wishers, and a vibe that, as the evening wears on, leans more on the bar than the restaurant.
The restaurant itself is more attractive than it has been in any of its recent avatars. It's a wide-open space, deep red, with gorgeous chandeliers and enough mounted antlers and such to hint archly at more traditional lodge motifs. Even the menu font is goofy good fun.
Because Gigante and crew know what they're doing, the Lodge is funny without being a joke. The price point is modest, servers know the ropes, and much of the food is quite tasty. Very solid hamburgers ($7 to $8.50, with extras 50 cents each) will satisfy, especially the Single Stacked Phaty Melt with its tumble of caramelized onions and provolone, served crisp, panini- style. (On the other hand, the hamburger sushi, $7, left us a little freaked out.) A choice of baked penne dishes provide addictive comfort foods, the best a B and B Penne ($7 small, $13 large), with bacon and broccoli dotting a three-cheese sauce, the whole thing molten in the middle but crispy on top with bread crumbs and bacon bits.
It's the rare menu that can accommodate edamame ($5) and baby corn dogs with mustard aioli ($4) on the same table. Not a bad combo, really, the salted soy beans adding a healthy gloss to the sweet, corn bread-encased mini dogs.
A number of Asian dishes seem like lifts from other Ciccio menus — seared rare tuna slices with spicy cucumber salad ($8) is a keeper that I've seen them do before, and the more traditional rice-paper-rolled sushi (spicy tuna, California roll, $9 and $6) are reminiscent of those at Water. No matter, they're all competently assembled and pretty.
The wine list provides another strong indication that no one is taking themselves overly seriously at the Lodge: all glasses under $6, with huge-production standbys (Big Yellow cab, Blackstone merlot) and a fair number of misspellings on the menu. Cocktails are a little pricier, with a full complement of sillitinis: Crazy Candy Cane ($9) is Ketel One, peppermint schnapps (shudder) and creme de cacao.
Add live music on the patio some nights, DJs on Fridays and Saturdays, ladies nights and a bathroom attendant on busy nights. So far it's cheek to jowl at the Lodge in the late evenings, the crowd skewing a little older (30s) than MacDinton's. It's too early to say whether Gigante and partner James Lanza have a hit, but it certainly seems like the Lodge suits the times. Not too fussy, not too expensive, and likely to put a smile on your face.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.