Joe DeBartolo has pizza in his blood.
He came from a Sicilian family of restaurateurs (his dad, Vito, opened his first pizzeria in 1966), then ended up owning 75 I Love NY Pizza locations up and down the eastern seaboard. He sold them all in 2008 when the economy got bumpy for New York-style pizza, taking the opportunity to return to Sicily to refuel a bit. While there, he noticed that Italians were gaga over pizza by the meter, these enormous rectangular pies that could be customized in sections. He brought the notion back to the Tampa Bay area and opened Pietopia in St. Petersburg early in 2015.
It didn't quite take, St. Pete locals having a superabundance of pizza options on Fourth Street N and perhaps daunted by pizza that came with such a steep price tag. What Pietopia was to be commended for, though, was great house-made mozzarella and more rigorous sourcing (DeBartolo eschews genetically modified foods, for instance) than most pizza places.
After Pietopia, DeBartolo decided to think outside the pizza box. This spring he opened Oggi Italian Street Food at the former site of the Yeoman's Road Pub. It bears a family resemblance to Pietopia: housemade moz, no GMOs, care in product sourcing (cane-sugar sodas, Bell & Evans naturally raised chickens). But like so many of the restaurants on Davis Islands' main drag, it also feels like a sweet neighborhood mom-and-pop, one that would be equally at home on a windy side street in Sicily.
The alleyway is filled with charming small tables illuminated by tiny white lights, a funky welded chrome archway and railings setting off the inviting front porch. The interior is rustic, with stacks of boxes of canned tomatoes and walls of reclaimed wood and tables made from more of these wide wooden planks. It's got real character, something magnified by a staff of Italian-accented waiters with the authentic balance of insouciance and helpfulness.
By and large, the food is good. It's a short menu: antipasti, an array of roasted chicken options, a handful of hearty pastas and some truly excellent cannoli (which you can have rolled in a variety of toppings like toasted coconut or shaved almonds). Prices are a tad high, but considering the quality of ingredients, they seem fair-minded.
My biggest issue, in a couple of visits to Oggi, was sweetness. As in, too much. Entrees come with a simple lettuce salad, very fresh tasting, but its dressing leans way to the sweet side. This may reflect my own preferences, but maybe offer a nonsweet vinaigrette or Caesar dressing option? The sweetness ran through the tomato sauce as well, from that on the spaghetti and house-made meatballs ($16) to the al forno rigatoni marinara dabbed with lush whipped ricotta and enriched with house mozzarella ($16). Both solid dishes with clear skill brought to bear, but for me just too sweet to be enjoyable.
Other options felt just right. Super simple Italian wines on tap (and get this, they are offered at $1 per glass during the week from 4 to 6 p.m. with an entree order) pair perfectly with a platter of family-style mixed grilled veggies ($12): zucchini, eggplant and the usual suspects joined by welcome oddities like rounds of soft roasted sweet potato. Now pair that platter up with another of thinly sliced prosciutto ($14) and your tablemates will be gesturing and eating with their hands like something straight out of a Bertolucci movie.
Where Oggi shines is with the roast chicken, offered simply roasted with lemons ($21) or blood oranges ($22) — both good, studded with garlic and rosemary, the blood orange adding both an edge of bitterness and a little more citrus fragrance — or with sausage ($22) or spicy calabrese peppers ($22) for something more hearty and rib-sticking. One of these is nearly enough for two people, wedges of roasted potato and a buttery rusk of bread rounding things out. The chicken itself has nice crisp skin, its meat flavorful and juicy.
If you share the chicken, you will be in a fine position to enjoy a cannoli (how about rainbow sprinkles on one end, pistachio on the other?, $5), the crisp, ricotta-stuffed shell paired perfectly with a complimentary espresso.
"Oggi" is Italian for "today," and indeed this newcomer feels fresh and contemporary. DeBartolo may be exploring untrammeled ground with this first nonpizza venture, but it has the assurance of a veteran. The vita is just a little dolce for my tastes.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.