There's a first time for everything. About a month ago, a new restaurant at the border of Safety Harbor and Clearwater started tweeting at me. The gist of the tweets was "Check us out," accompanied by come-hither food photos of pastas and pastries and interesting veggie-forward appetizers.
I was tweaked by a tweet, my curiosity piqued.
Rimma Kolesnikova, her husband Leonardo Castaldi, and their friend, chef Paolo Polo, put their heads together and debuted Acqua Alta in December. In many ways, this small strip mall restaurant is a departure from what we've seen before.
Castaldi and Polo grew up just 10 miles from each other in Venice, Italy, but didn't meet until last year in Tampa. Kolesnikova and Castaldi had moved to the area 2 1/2 years ago, eager to find local Italian restaurants that focused on healthy presentations and local ingredients, with an emphasis on dietary restrictions like vegetarian or gluten-free. (Kolesnikova has celiac disease.) They didn't find much. Meanwhile, Polo, a pescatarian himself, had moved to the United States for a new challenge after cooking in Italy for 30 years.
Acqua Alta means "high water," a term used for the astronomical tides that reach their peak in the Venetian Lagoon. It's what causes the oh-so-picturesque flooding in Venice. While flooding in the Safety Harbor area is fairly limited, Kolesnikova says that what drew them here was the way it was reminiscent of a European town, with rolling hills and a walkable main street. The restaurant is set in a tidy space that was formerly an Asian restaurant, with almost no wall decor or doodads that might orient someone toward the Boot.
Even the food is not precisely traditional Venetian fare. The February menu features a whole lot of bok choy, Florida shrimp and whatever else looked good and seasonal locally. I suppose this focus on local fits in with what one might encounter in Italy. For some staple ingredients — unbleached and unenriched flour (meaning nutrients haven't been artificially returned to the flour), unenriched pastas, GMO-free polenta and naturally grown rice — they import products from Italy. They use extra-virgin olive oil, vegetable oil for frying (no canola), butter only in desserts and a minimum of cheese, and they make an effort to source "clean" foods.
Dinner starts with a complimentary little bowl of soup, maybe fresh green pea or asparagus, the broth light and flavors lively, paired with a folded brown paper bag containing slices of moist house-made white bread.
In a couple of visits, I was most charmed by Polo's grandmother's recipe for tangy-sweet peperonata (kind of where ratatouille meets caponata, but with an emphasis on roasted bell peppers), offered as a side dish ($6) or as a topper on one night's bruschetta sampler ($13), the others rusks capped with chopped olive and a big pouf of thinly sliced prosciutto; with chopped tomato and little cubes of fresh mozzarella; and with tangy sauteed eggplant topped with paper-thin slices of lardo (a pork salumi made of plush fatback). The house spin on panzanella ($8) was also unusual and arresting, the bread less croutony and nearly pudding with its chopped tomato, cuke, onion and tangy vinaigrette.
And listen up, carbonara fans (there are legions of you): Acqua Alta's version is a rock star in its simplicity, the long strands of noodles enrobed in the eggy, bacony, olive oily sauce ($18). I had two different penne dishes that I liked nearly as much, one with fat, bouncy local shrimp, zucchini and capers ($19) and another with just-wilted arugula, fresh tomato and sun-dried tomato with a big shave of grana Padano ($16). All pastas are offered gluten free and meat free upon request.
Thus far, Kolesnikova, Castaldi and Polo make up the staff, Polo going from kitchen to dining room with enthusiastic explanations of the food and little extra touches he just wants you to try. (We munched gratis meringues one night, and on another I got a couple of mascarpone- and walnut-stuffed dates. This in no way is a suggestion to skip dessert. Kolesnikova's gluten-free tiramisu ($8.50), layered in a glass with moist chocolate cake of her own devising, is a hard thing to pass up no matter your relationship with gluten.
There are moments that I lament my growing dependence on Twitter, my scrolling thumb cramping up and hashtags floating before my eyes. Acqua Alta is a charmer, partly for what it doesn't have (not a lot of fried food, no chicken breasts or big red meat), and it might have taken me a while to find it without a little bird tweeting.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.