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Dining Planner: Bern's Winefest, Festa Italiana and Tampa Bay's best Italian restaurants

FOODIE HAVEN: Bern's Winefest

Every year, many a foodie looks on in envy after tickets sell out too quickly to snag at seat at Bern's Winefest. But this year with 14 events spread across Bern's Steak House, Haven, Bern's Fine Wines and Spirits, and the Epicurean Hotel, the 19th annual week of culinary experiences for once still had some tickets available at press time. The $450 Winemaker Dinner is sold out, as is the $150 Bern's 60th Birthday Bubble Brunch, but there were still tickets to be found for weekday events like the Beer and Cheese Seminar on Wednesday ( $75 ) and Dessert, Cognac and Decadence on Tuesday ($150). See bernswinefest.com.

GET A SEAT: The Longest Table

A dining room just isn't big enough for the dinner dubbed The Longest Table to be held April 14 on Bayshore Drive in downtown St. Petersburg from the Museum of Fine Arts to the Vinoy. The 21-and-older "Feast in the Street" features prix fixe menus from area restaurants paired with adult drinks, all to benefit WUSF Public Media. Tickets are $100-$160 at wusf.usf.edu. Dinner starts at 7 p.m.

TASTE OF ITALY: Festa Italiana

Centennial Park in Ybor City is home to the annual Festa Italiana, a celebration of all things Italian on Sunday. But before you say ciao to Sunday's festivities, Festa Saturday in the park is a free preview event from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with a bocce ball tournament and a homemade wine competition. From 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Centennial Park will be filled with Italian cuisine from area restaurants and caterers, live entertainment and children's activities such as the grape-stomping competition. Admission is $5 advance, $10 day of, 11 and younger free at Centennial Park, 1800 E Eighth Ave., Tampa. (813) 248-3316.

On our list

Festa Italiana in Ybor inspired us to look at some of our favorite Italian restaurants in the Tampa Bay area.

Cena

The dinner-only menu is resolutely Italian, but very personal: Start off with a small bowl of salted, warm housemade sunchoke chips while you consider whether to go with the mushroom arrancini or a hearty bacon and eggs, Italian style: a potato frittata paired with a thin, juicy plank of pork belly, both of them admirably showcased with a tomato vinaigrette. For entrees, the asparagus risotto is textbook and there's a gorgeous seared filet mignon napped with a little truffled cheese sauce and accompanied by roasted sunchokes and still-snappy skinny green beans and bits of pancetta. Still, you don't want to miss the pastry chef's desserts, all little architectural wonders. 1120 E Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. (813) 374-8840.

Donatello Restaurant

The blush is not off the rose at this decades-old Tampa original. In the dining room, tuxedoed waiters have the assurance only longtime employment provides, whether that's guiding guests through the menu or whipping up a tableside Caesar (the best in town). The food is rigorously traditional Northern Italian, with just about everything we can think of made in house (all right, not the penne or other macaroni). The wine list is stunning, with a breadth of prices, regions, varietal, and large and small production represented. But wine costs a pretty penny, and the menu is in financial lockstep. This is splurge country, but well worth the do-re-mi. 232 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. (813) 875-6660.

Il Ritorno

David Benstock's version is not fancy Northern Italian cream sauces, nor Sicily's big ol' bowls of meatballs. What he's doing is sensible portions at moderate prices (precisely halfway between Carrabba's and Donatello), plating dishes attractively and rigorously. They make their own crisp-topped focaccia and little salt-flecked ciabatta rolls, served on a stylish swath of black slate with a jewel-green basil oil. They make all their pastas and have a ton of their andouille, pancetta and guanciale. And housemade desserts are booming, from a coconut cake accessorized by candied local kumquat, toasted coconut and a quenelle of tangerine gelato, to a trio of tiny lemon panna cottas with a pool of lemon curd, strawberry coulis and fresh strawberries. 449 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, (727) 897-5900.

Beau and Mo's Italian Eating House

Beau and Madonna Wallace, longtime Chicago restaurateurs, opened this neighborhood Italian spot, serving up wide bowls of pappardelle Bolognese and orecchiette, little ears of pasta into the whorls of which soft white beans had snuck, wisps of spinach lending color and a bit of grassiness, and juicy, monster pork chop Vesuvio-style, topped with an avalanche of green peas (why have green peas fallen so out of favor? Give peas a chance!) and creamy plank potatoes, all of it glossed with a garlicky wine sauce. Deals like half-price pasta on Wednesday, half-price wine bottles on Tuesday and buy-one-get-one-half-price on Thursday add to the comfortable, inviting vibe of a neighborhood favorite. 2924 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 771-3690.

Casa Ludovico Italian Restaurant

Southern Italian and proud of it, Carmine Cervelli doesn't shrink from tomato sauce. Whether enriched with clams and sea urchin or plain tomato-tomato, he ladles it on heavily. There's a meaty selection of antipasto, squid-ink pasta, homemade mozzarella, fresh fish and taverna charm. 1710 Alt. U.S. 19, Palm Harbor. (727) 784-7779.

Cesare's on the Beach

Cesare Tini — the muse of such landmarks as Spartaco, Paradiso and the former Primadonna — and chef August Galiano brought their signature "anything you want, I do for you'' service to the beach. Count on classic pastas, pink sauces, meltingly soft gnocchi and the veal supper Sinatra would sing for. 794 S Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater. 727-449-8797.

Osteria Natalina

Spartaco Giolito, one of Tampa's warmest, most lovable Italian restaurateurs, is back in his original space, named for his mother, Natalina. As the Italian word "osteria" suggests, it is a more casual spot — a shorter menu and emphasis on daily specials; no bottle of wine over 40 bucks. Seafood dishes feature prominently, reflecting the food of his coastal Italian hometown of Rimini. In other words, a more rustic, less expensive eatery in the Italian osteria tradition. It seems perfect for these times. A comforting bowl of pasta e fagioli, steam rising, meal-like in its crowd of beans and veggies, followed by a generous bowl of delicious housemade strozzapreti. 3215 S MacDill Ave., Tampa. (813) 831-1210.

Dining Planner: Bern's Winefest, Festa Italiana and Tampa Bay's best Italian restaurants 04/06/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 6, 2016 10:43am]
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