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Review: Menu and portions expansive at Tony & Nello's Italian

TIERRA VERDE

The white butcher paper on the tables will likely be cut a little crooked, as if whoever was tasked with the chore had other fish to fry. • And they probably did. • Tony & Nello's has been around for four years, but its predecessor, JoJo's Pizza right next door, was in business for nearly 30 years, over which time owners Antonio Cammarota and family built such a massive following — its no-fuss dining room filling to capacity with fans of their huge-portion, big-flavored southern Italian staples — that they annexed the larger space next door and moved in.

For the newbie, the menu can be alarming. Column after column of centered text make Rorschach-like shapes over several pages. A huge number of antipasti and an equally vast array of pasta, chicken and veal dishes as well as pizzas may mean you are still studying the menu long after the bread in the breadbasket has cooled. "I don't know, I've got to look at the stromboli list again, and the calzones, but that 15th pasta with the spicy broccoli sounds pretty good."

Dishes aren't Buca di Beppo big, but close. Most entrees come with a mixed salad (huge and snappy fresh), bread and a side of pasta (so massive you'll think you're in Ironman training). And said pasta is not perfunctory — you get to pick your shape as well as your sauce (the alla vodka is zesty and rich), the noodles themselves al dente and piping hot. All of this is a disincentive to start with the buttery garlic rolls ($4.50 small, $6.50 large), but be stalwart. They are delicious.

In fact, if your party is the agreeable kind, sharing makes sense: A 10-inch thin-crust pizza, maybe a veggie with peppers, mushrooms and onions ($13.50), or a hammock-sized calzone packing olives, spinach, mushroom and pepperoni ($9.25) make good entry points, everyone battling cheese strings and chewing happily on the flavorful crust.

From there, settle on a pasta, perhaps the rustica ($16.95) with chicken, sauteed portobello, bits of prosciutto and a lovely fried-rosemary-inflected cream sauce. The kitchen also has a way with meatballs, so a straight-up spaghetti with marinara and polpette (that's meatballs; $14.95) gives everyone a satisfying Lady and the Tramp option.

From there, pounded and lightly floured veal scallopini and chicken breasts are put through familiar preparations, from francese to its kissing cousin piccata (both buttery and lemony) to traditional parmigiana with red sauce and molten cheese. Piccata ($17.95 chicken, $19.95 veal) at Tony & Nello's is especially good, but be vigilant for the occasional bitter lemon seed. This, paired with a side of sauteed broccoli rabe ($9.75) (which has much more oomph than regular broccoli), makes a satisfying main course, especially when accompanied by a wine from the affordably priced — and heavily Italian — list.

The restaurant is clearly a group effort for the Cammarotas, with Antonio and his son, Nello, in the kitchen, daughter Lina zooming around the front of the house (because it gets busy, servers seem always in high gear) and wife Tina in charge of cakes and desserts.

And this is where the sharing ends.

Yes, you've had a divide and conquer approach to the restaurant's huge portions to this point, but the house cannoli is a hold-your-own, a crisp fried dough shell shattering to reveal the sultry, cinnamony sweetened ricotta within, the whole thing drizzled with bittersweet chocolate sauce. Like so many dishes at Tony & Nello's, it's traditional and familiar, a fact that in no way diminishes diners' obvious pleasure. Mexican cuisine may have recently outstripped Italian as the nation's most popular international cuisine, but you'd never know it looking around this Tierra Verde favorite.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

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Tony & Nello's

1136 Pinellas Bayway S, Tierra Verde, (727) 867-3577;

tonyandnellos.com

Cuisine: Southern Italian

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, until 11 p.m.

Friday and Saturday

Details: V, MC, Disc.; reservations accepted; beer and wine

Prices: Antipasti $3.25-$9.75; pasta $11.95-$19.95;

pizzas $13-$19.50

Rating out of four stars:

Food: ★★★ Service: ★★ Atmosphere: ★★

Overall: ★★½

Review: Menu and portions expansive at Tony & Nello's Italian 08/05/13 [Last modified: Monday, August 5, 2013 5:51pm]

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