By LAURA REILEY
Times Food Critic
TAMPA — Luis Zamora and Spartaco Giolito are masters at using their noodles. Together, they started Vino E Pasta five years ago. Shortly thereafter, Giolito sold his part to his partner and devoted his time to his eponymous Spartaco's (now Osteria Natalina). Zamora kept on doing what he was doing: classic antipasti, traditional scallopini and a create-your-own-pasta concept that's hard not to love.
Not glamorous from the outside, Vino E Pasta is a little square house set off by itself adjacent to a Publix-anchored strip mall. A few cafe tables on the front porch and a cozy, close-set dining room inside, it's the kind of place that collects devoted regulars. With well-seasoned accents and wry senses of humor, the waiters treat everyone like family, or at least in-laws.
A plate of tomato bruschetta welcomes guests, a ramekin of basil oil adding a punchy dab to the garlicky toasts. Then begin with some of the best fried calamari around. Plump, not at all rubbery, with a thin, greaseless batter — these babies taste of sweet, briny ocean air. They arrive hot, paired with an unusual zucchini approach, thick matchsticks of squash battered and fried until soft-centered and juicy. The accompanying limes don't seem as complementary as lemons might, but the bowl of marinara hits all the right notes.
The rest of the menu you could predict. Caesar salad, gnocchi, tortellini, veal Marsala. Vino E Pasta is not reinventing the wheel, it's just rolling along with proven favorites.
Preceded by a fairly forgettable (and overdressed) salad, pastas emerge from the kitchen oversized and capped by tendrils of rising steam. "This is a hot plate" is an oft-heard warning. This might apply to an evening's special seafood risotto ($27.95, one of the most expensive options, but very generous with the good stuff), the to-the-tooth arborio absolutely bustling with clams, mussels, perfect pink shrimp and a fat steamed lobster tail. Or the caution may refer aptly to a penne a la vodka ($14.95), its cream-heightened tomato sauce, augmented with bits of prosciutto, swaddling expertly cooked al dente pasta. Super simple but sophisticated.
With the rest of the pasta dishes, you choose a long or short shape, from bucatini to manicotti, then choose your sauce — traditional ones like a basic meat sauce or tomato concasse and basil produce a dish that costs $12.95, the specialty sauces, like an insouciant puttanesca or a punchy pesto, are $13.95. With these, Zamora makes a good case for pasta's versatility and chameleon-like allures. (We believe him: Americans have gone from zero pounds per capita in 1900, to more than 24 pounds in the past couple of years.)
While bountiful, these pastas are nice as a shared second course, leaving room for a veal dish and then dessert. I found the veal Milanese ($18.95) to be a very ample portion of breaded and pan-fried pounded scallopini, but the absence of a sauce beyond chopped tomato made the finished dish dry. Better was the saltimbocca ($18.95) with its mantle of molten mozzarella and swirl of demiglace.
Desserts (all $5.95) are hard to pass on, a tray wafted in front of the table like a toreador's red cape. We charged, ending up preferring a tangy, moist lemon icebox cake to the duo of crisp-shelled cannoli.
As the name implies, Vino E Pasta gives equal attention to its liquid refreshments. The wine list, while not vast, is extremely egalitarian (California pinot noirs mingling with heavyweight barolos) and affordably priced, with plenty of options under $35 a bottle. Just another reason Zamora's South Tampa gem seems to have such an avid following.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] 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.