Some restaurants have bad names on purpose (Crabby Dick's). And then there are those that may be the naive choices of non-native speakers. (Let's assume Chewy Balls is a boba tea place and Crapitto's Cucina Italiana an unfortunate surname situation.)
Still, there are other names that make you wonder. Was it a group decision, spit-balled in a conference room over too many cups of coffee? Or did someone wake up after an unsettling dream and it was the thought that couldn't be unthought: "I know, we should call the restaurant Sea-Guini. Definitely with a hyphen."
On paper it looks like something for which you'd need an ointment. Say it out loud and there's the eureka: Guini as in linguini. So it's seafood and Italian, I get it.
The marquee restaurant in the new Opal Sands Resort is quite lovely, the exceptional beachside views competing with a bubbling water wall (think aquarium with attitude, sans fish) for focal point. The exhibition kitchen centers around a mosaic-tiled pizza oven; white linens and armchairs are juxtaposed with crisp navy sconces and accents for a subtle nautical allusion.
It reads like a special-occasion or expense-account restaurant, only the dining room is frequently inundated with flip-flopped folks fresh from the beach. Such is Florida restaurant life. Waiters may adopt an entirely unnecessary Italian lilt but they don't seem to have been briefed on precisely how to explain or say the Italian ingredients and dishes. (Those adorable fried doughnut holes called zeppole, say, have an emphasis on the first syllable and the end is like "ay.") Servers make up for such bumbles with consistent friendliness and enthusiasm.
The menu will seem familiar: Caesar salad, burrata caprese, linguini with clams, penne alla vodka. Plates are pretty, servings are ample and prices are hotel-restaurant high. On a couple of visits, the most satisfying dishes, especially visually, were salads and desserts. A classic wedge ($9) is made memorable by its thin vertical planks of crisp pancetta and a great buttermilk dressing juxtaposed with tangy/punchy Gorgonzola shavings. The burrata ($11) was even prettier, with a not-too-sweet balsamic drizzle, squiggles of bright green, fruity olive oil and a flurry of micro basil accenting the plush cheese and wedges of flavorful tomato.
Having talked up the dramatic pizza oven, I regretfully declare that the pizzas need the most work of anything at Sea-Guini. These personal-sized pies have tough, dry crusts that no amount of toppings can ameliorate. Whoever mans the pizza station should learn at the knee of someone like Dan Bavaro — whose newest Bavaro's opens next week downtown in St. Petersburg, as a matter of fact.
Pastas fare better across the board. What's not to like about linguine vongole ($28): wine, garlic, olive oil, chili flake and clams that are sweet and tender. And the wider pappardelle ($25) comes ladled with a deeply savory short rib ragu zapped with a hint of rosemary and a little lively pepperiness imparted by arugula and a flurry of nutty-salty pecorino. With local hogfish and grouper ($29 and $34) on the menu, I would suggest sparer assemblages — the grouper's bread crumb crusting and then heavy tomato coulis (nice flavor, though, because it's lightly smoked) and creamy risotto make it hard to taste the fish itself. Executive chef Todd Holender, most recently of the Florida Keys, does execute some pretty plates, though.
At this point the wine list seems like it needs some expansion in terms of varietal, geographic region and price points, but Sea-Guini is firing on all cylinders with the straight-up Italian desserts. The house creme brulee ($10) features just a whiff of lavender, its candied mantle perfectly shatter-able to get to the velvet below. And a trio of gelati (salted caramel, chocolate and vanilla; $9) is a textbook example of if-it-ain't-broke.
This newcomer gives visitors and beach residents another option, competing directly with SHOR at the Hyatt Regency and Caretta on the Gulf at the Sandpearl. And I know I sounded like a meanie about the Guini, but maybe the name will help it stand out from the pack.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.