Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Restaurants

Restaurant review: Acqua Alta is a charmer in Clearwater, partly for what it doesn't have

CLEARWATER

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.

     
   
Comments
Hungry at Gasparilla? Eight great restaurants near the parade route

Hungry at Gasparilla? Eight great restaurants near the parade route

GASPARILLA: THE DINING EDITIONGasparilla. Some things are certain. There will be scantily clad pirates and liquid libations. At some point, it is advised to eat some food. Here are some of the top places that are easily accessed along the invasion ro...
Published: 01/23/18
We Tried That: Taking a food tour of Dunedin

We Tried That: Taking a food tour of Dunedin

It’s cold and overcast when I pull into Sea Sea Riders, a seafood restaurant on Dunedin’s Main Street. I’m flustered because I’m running late, about 5 minutes past our 1 p.m. start time, and I pull my sweater around me to ward off a gust of wind as I...
Published: 01/23/18
This year’s Florida State Fair food oddities include catfish ‘sundae’ and chicken and waffles pizza

This year’s Florida State Fair food oddities include catfish ‘sundae’ and chicken and waffles pizza

Being the first in the country on the fair-going calendar, the Florida State Fair is also the first to roll out the outrageous, deep-fried, bacon-wrapped, cheese-covered foods on a stick that perfume the midway. While cotton candy, corn dogs and funn...
Published: 01/22/18
Shake Shack, Momofuku and more: Please come to Tampa Bay

Shake Shack, Momofuku and more: Please come to Tampa Bay

Fabio is coming! Not the Fabio on your romance novel, with the billowing hair and large quantities of artificial butter. This Fabio, in all likelihood, uses real butter. And olive oil. Fabio Viviani, the charming Top Chef alum known for appearances...
Published: 01/17/18
Time to carbo load: Three new bakeries include an Australian bakery, second La Segunda

Time to carbo load: Three new bakeries include an Australian bakery, second La Segunda

LA SEGUNDAA Tampa Bay giant has stirred and is on the move. La Segunda Central Bakery, a family-owned Ybor City institution for nearly 103 years (they celebrated that birthday Jan. 15) and the largest producer of Cuban bread in the world, will open a...
Published: 01/17/18
Restaurant review: Byblos Cafe has busted out of its mold with a broader Mediterranean menu, and that’s good

Restaurant review: Byblos Cafe has busted out of its mold with a broader Mediterranean menu, and that’s good

TAMPASeldom have I paid such close attention to a restaurant closure, remodeling and reopening. Byblos Cafe began a major renovation last year, keeping the restaurant open as long as possible during the summer with some nifty temporary walls to shiel...
Published: 01/16/18
Restaurant review: Ichicoro Ane brings ramen, Japanese small plates and a whole lot of fun to St. Petersburg

Restaurant review: Ichicoro Ane brings ramen, Japanese small plates and a whole lot of fun to St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURGWhen Station House restaurant opened on Christmas Eve 2014 it was a totally reinvented space, Steve Gianfilippo’s vision for the basement level of a 104-year-old, five-story, 30,000-square-foot building he’d bought for $3 million. For y...
Published: 01/12/18
Updated: 01/13/18
Top Chef’s Fabio Viviani will open a restaurant in downtown Tampa

Top Chef’s Fabio Viviani will open a restaurant in downtown Tampa

The Tampa Bay restaurant scene has hit a certain kind of critical mass. For several years, rumors have swirled that the nation’s celebrity chefs were considering this part of the Florida peninsula as "the next big thing," a place to colonize and set ...
Published: 01/12/18
The future of food includes insect cuisine, edible packaging, sea vegetables and more

The future of food includes insect cuisine, edible packaging, sea vegetables and more

Insect cuisine. Edible packaging. High-tech rooftop gardens. The future of food is around the corner. With a current world population of 7.2 billion, the United Nations is projecting an increase of 1 billion people over the next 12 years, and 9.6 bi...
Published: 01/10/18
La Segunda Bakery to open new South Tampa location — with seats

La Segunda Bakery to open new South Tampa location — with seats

A Tampa Bay giant has stirred and is on the move. La Segunda Central Bakery, a family-owned Ybor City institution for nearly 103 years (they celebrate that birthday Jan. 15) and the largest producer of Cuban bread in the world, will open a second loc...
Published: 01/09/18