Michel and Robin Rey were big fans of Ciro Mancini. They enjoyed his work at Bellini in Dunedin, where he cooked from 2004 to 2009. And they enjoyed his food again at Casanova in Clearwater briefly in 2011.
He had one of those menus: Page forward to the "vitello and pollo," but then leaf back a few pages to peruse the linguini section again. Turn all the way to the first page to have another gander at the antipasti, except that eggplant Parmesan appetizer looks pretty good. It was classic Italian, with red sauces and tangy piccatas and rustic Bologneses, comforting but still sophisticated.
And then Mancini was gone. He absconded to cook at Big Italy in Orlando.
The Reys put their heads together and with partners Russ and Chris Quaglia they lured Mancini back by building him just about the prettiest restaurant in Dunedin. Opened in February in what was previously Paris Hair Design, Pensare feels like it has been around all along with its wide wraparound patio and pretty wood floors. Longtime Mancini fans have found their way here, and new fans are being courted.
Mancini has brought Italian servers with him from other projects and essentially replicated his menu from Bellini and Casanova (well, with the house pastas now called ravioli Pensare and such). And in light of a couple of recent visits, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
A special appetizer of burrata (a hefty $20, but it was eminently sharable) brought a bouncy ball of creamy-centered mozzarella and greens, with a whiff of truffle oil, all perched atop translucent rounds of air-dried beef bresaola, a masterful array of flavors and textures. A wide bowl of sweet mussels ($12) lounge in a warm bath of garlicky white wine with cherry tomatoes, the slightly briny broth mopped with crusty toasts. Because entrees come with a house or arugula salad, apps aren't essential, but they're hard to pass up.
Dishes that jump out at Pensare often fall into one of two categories: the "oh, I really shouldn't, but I will" decadent and those heightened by his bright and lively tomato sauce. One that fits both categories, the house ravioli ($22) is stuffed with ricotta and Maine lobster, the little pillows paired with shrimp and scallops in a cream-lightened tomato sauce. It's rich and luxurious, the sweet seafood flavors dominating, but the vivacity of the tomato sauce shines right through the cream.
It's that tomato sauce that elevates thinly sliced, breaded and fried eggplant layered with molten mozzarella ($12) and it's there again in the veal Contadina ($20), the scallopini paired deftly with thin-sliced eggplant. And for luxury? For $22, it's hard to indulge yourself any more thoroughly than the saccottini Ciro, pouches of ricotta-stuffed fresh pasta in a black truffle-flecked cream sauce with lengths of sauteed mushroom and chewy bits of pancetta.
Before the weather gets too steamy, the patio at Pensare is the premium seating, with views of all that's going on along Main Street. In or out, Mancini and Michel Rey make regular stops at tables, and servers are attentive and well paced, their only shortcoming being the occasional language barrier that gets in the way of dish explication. No matter — the menu comes with vivid descriptions, each dish paired with a wine suggestion from the short, familiar list.
I was prepared to ding Mancini for not making his own desserts. With such an extensive menu, the kitchen can't muster a little more juice to focus on sweets? My grousing was silenced when ours arrived, a textbook dark chocolate souffle ($7), with great loft and a molten center, and a layered limoncello cake ($7), its tender sponge and lemon-flavored butter cream an ideal foil for a tiny cup of inky espresso.
Fine, they come from elsewhere, but Mancini knows how to pick 'em. When you think about it (and pensare, after all, means "think" in Italian), maybe it's really the Reys and the Quaglias who know how to pick 'em.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.