TAMPA — It rises out of the dark on a quiet stretch of W Humphrey Street, enough away from the hubbub of Dale Mabry to make it an oddity. Valet guys whisk around its perimeter, jangling with keys. The parking lot is filled to capacity with a little overflow stretching down the block. Iavarone's Steakhouse and Italian Grill has always been popular with celebs and sports legends in part because of its proximity to George M. Steinbrenner Field and Raymond James Stadium.
Still, this part of Tampa has plenty of options for well-cooked steaks and solid Italian food at a fair price. What makes Iavarone's endure is its palpable sense of history. Carmine and Frances Iavarone chucked their grocery business and started Carmine Restaurant in Tampa in 1948. Their kids carried on, opening Malio's Restaurant and Lounge at S Dale Mabry and Azeele in 1969, Carmine Restaurant on 7th in Ybor in 1989, and Iavarone's in Carrollwood at Humphrey and Himes in 1993, in all, an awful lot of dining room real estate attended to by members of the Iavarone family.
These days, Iavarone's is overseen by the third generation, young Rico and Carmine making use of YouTube and Facebook and pushing a 21st century soundtrack (on one recent night Lady Gaga visibly flummoxed diners in the low-lit wooden booths). Back in the day, Carmine Restaurant's Cuban sandwiches were 35 cents; now at Iavarone's they're $8. Time marches on, but at least now it can march right up to an open-air rooftop cigar and martini bar.
A waft of wood smoke in the parking lot has you thinking "steak" in the foyer, a mantra that can easily be indulged with a thick 14-ounce ribeye ($23.50) or similar-sized New York strip ($24.50). Portions are generous and the meat (USDA choice) is flavorful and tender. The grill itself doesn't seem to be of the super-hot variety, making a darkly charred exterior and a very pink interior hard to manage. A crisp, cold, nicely anchovy-ed Caesar precedes the entrees (alternately, a pretty little tossed salad or a cup of the day's soup), and a choice of sides brings garlicky sauteed spinach, a plate of fat steamed asparagus spears (each an additional $1.50) or familiar starches (slightly sage-inflected mashed potatoes, hefty baked potatoes or a big tangle of linguini with marinara).
This last is perfectly nice, but it isn't nearly as nuanced as some of the other pasta offerings. One of the most beloved is a lobster fra diavolo ($30), not too devilish and with generous chunks of sweet lobster meat; another winner is the penne Iavarone ($13), a creamy tomato sauce cradling grilled chicken, sauteed mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes, the whole thing capped off with little fluffs of goat cheese.
Because portions are generous, it's tough to pack in an appetizer or dessert at Iavarone's. If you can manage, the applewood shrimp ($10.50) are delicious simplicity, a sextet of jumbo crustaceans, smoky and seasoned just right, with a foamy butter sauce in which to backstroke them. And on the sweet end, a duo of mini cannoli ($5) get an amaretto-flavored ricotta and mini chocolate chips, while a bananas foster ($6) comes with the requisite sultry rum butter sauce but without all the pageantry.
During a period when a number of old-timers have closed and other local restaurant legends are struggling, it's heartening to see Iavarone's still does a brisk business. The new generation's healthy respect for tradition, coupled with a willingness to experiment, give it a sporting chance.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog is at 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.