GPS has dimmed our passion for physical maps, and I would posit that this in turn has curtailed some of our wanderlust. That's my theory, anyway. Remember when you'd gaze at a wide open map of the U.S., each state represented in pale pastels and Interstates 10 to 80 making inviting crooked lines from end to end? It was easy to lapse into a roadtrip reverie, chucking it all Easy Rider — or Thelma and Louise — style without any of the messy bits.
Madonna and Beau Wallace just did it. Longtime Chicago restaurateurs, they were ready to get out of the snow and cold. Where do we want to go? They piled into the car and tried New Orleans. Nice, but not quite it. Then it was off to the Keys. Almost it. And then they headed up to St. Petersburg, stayed at the Hollander and fell in love.
They've been here nine weeks and signed a lease on a restaurant six weeks ago, putting a whole lot of elbow grease into the space that most recently was Crums Bar and Grill and Sazon Restaurante. It's a humble space that is never going to be hip or glamorous, but it is perfectly suited to a family-friendly neighborhood Italian spot, one that has deals like half-price pasta on Wednesday, half-price wine bottles on Tuesday and buy-one-get-one-half-price on Thursday.
Beau is in the kitchen, having learned to cook at his grandmother's knee, with Dave Burns, whom they brought with them from Chicago as sous chef. Madonna (Mo) scoots around the dining room, making the kind of seasoned pro chitchat that is amiable and never intrusive.
I watched two little boys and their dad on a gentlemen's evening out slurping up wide bowls of pappardelle Bolognese ($18, but it was Wednesday, so $9), licking garlic bread grease from their fingers and debating the relative merits of football and basketball. Meanwhile, I plowed into a pork chop Vesuvio ($18), a juicy monster 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. It is a huge chop, but looks positively demure when compared to the 32-ounce tomahawk ribeye chop ($56), wet-aged for more than 30 days, which easily feeds two or more — and on the second-entree-half-off night it becomes a serious bargain.
Another night I sat at the bar with a friend and shared a bowl of orecchiette ($16), little ears of pasta into the whorls of which soft white beans had snuck, wisps of spinach lending color and a bit of grassiness. (Here's a tip: Add spicy sausage to this dish to lift its heartiness.) And although entrees come with a serviceable little green salad, we couldn't resist a starter of burrata ($12), that buffalo mozzarella cousin with the velvety center, shown off against good, ripe beefsteak tomatoes, basil and salad greens.
The restaurant's wine list is pleasant but unremarkable, with a big handful of large-production Italian bottlings and an array of wine-based cocktails (without a full liquor license, they're playing around with wine that mimics vodka or gin, which sadly lacks the verve of the real deal). There are very competent cappuccinos ($4.50), best sipped alongside the just-filled cannoli ($6), shells crunchy and ricotta filling fluffy and sweet.
These Chicago transplants haven't brought St. Petersburg anything revolutionary. You've seen cheese ravioli with marinara like this before. But in a town that is increasingly dense with restaurants, Beau & Mo's has the comfortable, inviting vibe of a neighborhood favorite right out of the gate.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.