THE ST. PETE SHUFFLE

Bella Brava's ambitions often seemed too big for its enormous britches. Thirty-foot ceilings, two levels and room for 274, it struggled since it opened five years ago to fill it all, despite a lively bar, positive reviews and a comforting take on casual Italian cuisine. So, in late August, the owners joined the burgeoning Beach Drive scene, burrowing into a cozy spot, a revved-up bar and a menu much easier on the wallet.

The place is rocking. Lunch is quiet and steady, but weekend nights can find 45-minute waits and chattering crowds spilling onto the sidewalks, filling outdoor tables, creating an infectious energy. It feels like a bar with a restaurant, but it's by design.

"We wanted the bar to be much more of a central focus,'' says Mike Harting, general manager and a co-owner. "We wanted the energy more centralized.''

The design is modern but warm, with earth tones and fieldstone inside and out, floor to ceiling chalkboards, small teardrop lights over the squared-off U-shaped bar. There's room for more than 200 total, with about 60 outside. The outdoor vibe is lively, but all that centralized energy can make for a pretty noisy experience inside.

The new bar needed new cocktails ($8.99), so classics like the Negroni (Plymouth gin, sweet vermouth and Campari) join more modern drinks like a Strawberry Balsamic Martini (vodka, orange liqueur, fresh strawberries, sweet balsamic syrup and fresh lime juice). A healthy assortment of wines by the glass are divided into helpful categories ("medium body with moderate tannins and density'').

The menu, Harting says, mixes old favorites (sausage Rigatoni with asiago cheese bread crust) and new dishes (lobster macaroni and cheese). A management team creates and executes the menu, with prices intended to draw regulars. Nearly all the entrees are under $20, and the two that are not are reasonably priced. The rack of lamb ($21.99) is a generous portion atop mint pesto, with roasted vegetables and a choice of starch (try the mascarpone mashed potatoes). The fettucine bolognese ($13.99) tastes fresh but untraditional — no cream, lots of tomato, not very meaty. A new oven has improved the pizzas with a crispier, lighter crust.

In keeping with the bar focus, much time was spent on appetizers, Harting says. Carpaccio comes with peppery arugula, shredded parmesan reggiano, capers and sea salt, the thin slices of beef crusted in black pepper. Calamari has delightful strips of fried zucchini and fennel.

But the most talked about feature of the restaurant? A restroom fixture, the Dyson Airblade, a hand dryer that actually works. Go figure. "We spent an inordinate amount of time developing the menu,'' Harting says, "and we're known for the hand dryers!''

All things fun and Greek

If Bella Brava struggled to fill its old space on Central Avenue, the Acropolis Greek Taverna that took its place can feel like it's bursting at the seams. It opened to crowds Oct. 1 and hasn't looked back.

Quiet by day, with a pleasant sidewalk lunch crowd of office workers and visitors, Acropolis turns into a raucous party at dinner celebrating all things Greek. Weekend nights find a belly dancer and live music, celebratory plate-breaking and napkin throwing, line dancing snaking in and out of the place every hour and waiters holding flaming plates of cheese and yelling "Opa!" Animated waiters scurry up and down the two levels, customers fill the expanded bar area and outdoor tables, paper napkins hang from the undulating wooden strips of the first-floor ceiling and are scattered about the floor (occasionally falling onto your plate), the lilting sounds of the Bouzouki fill the air.

There's food too, of course, reasonably priced Greek standards that will be familiar to anyone who has visited the three other parts of this mini Tampa Bay chain, which began in much humbler digs nine years ago in Ybor City.

Appetizers are $5 to $8. All but one entree is under $20, and the exception is a generous platter of kebobs ($27). A whole red snapper ($17) is delightfully moist, marinated in rosemary, garlic, olive oil and fresh lemon and charbroiled and topped with a lemon marinade. Lamb chops ($19) are tender and grilled just right.

The wine selection is entirely Greek, and there are five Greek beers to choose from. Sangria (a bit sweet) and margaritas (fresh lime juice) are 2-for-1 all the time.

The interior was remodeled with warm, Mediterranean colors, thin tube lights hanging over the bar, oversized paintings on the walls. A large circular table with comfortable banquettes replaced Bella Brava's enormous pizza oven.

This is not a place for quiet conversation, except at lunch. Pretend you're at a Greek wedding and join in the festivities. What's not to like? Fun atmosphere, reasonable prices, and those fancy Dyson Airblades? They've got those too.

Bella Brava

204 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 895-5515, bellabrava.com.

Acropolis Greek Taverna

515 Central Ave., St Petersburg; (727) 823-1010, acropolistaverna.com.

THE ST. PETE SHUFFLE 11/04/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 2:43pm]

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