It's got pilasters and curved archways and marble statuary and carved fireplace mantles and complicated deco wrought-iron work. In short, the new Villa Bellini in the 1928 building that housed Tio Pepe for decades is a knockout. There's valet parking, a gracious gaggle of lovely young women at the front desk, bartenders who ask your name and politely volunteer their own, a sumptuously appointed private dining room, and the kind of chandeliers and gilded mirrors that make you think a sports coat might be in order.
But the biggest asset at this newcomer is chef-owner Ciro Mancini. Folks in northern Pinellas will be familiar with his work. Most recently at Pensare in Dunedin, briefly at Casanova in Clearwater before that, and at Bellini in Dunedin from 2004 to 2009. He specializes in textbook classic Italian — red sauces and tangy piccatas and rustic Bologneses — served expertly and elegantly by guys with the gift of gab.
This menu is Day Two of Rosetta Stone Italian lessons. Repeat after me: parmigiana, marsala, saltimbocca. Pappardelle, cannelloni, gnocchi. Yes, there are things that Clearwater lost when Tio Pepe closed and Ceviche took over for a bit. Much of the epic wine list moved on to the Ceviche group's Rococo Steak; the ovens near the front door stopped churning out freshly baked breads; the salads stopped being tossed tableside. But Mancini has maintained the spirit of Tio Pepe, swapping in Italian cuisine for Spanish: It's a brand new restaurant that feels old-timey in a good way.
I'm guessing Mancini's accountant will be popping Advil like candy when all the construction bills get tallied, but the extensive renovation of the space serves to make it fresh and at the same time like an homage to a gentler time. Have a drink at the bar, get escorted to your white-clothed table, then linger late into the evening over tiny espressos and complimentary cordials of limoncello.
The best dishes I ate will surprise few longtime Dunedin diners. Mozzarella is imported from Caserta, Italy, sexily plush and paired with bright cherry tomato halves and ribbons of basil in the house caprese ($12); a tartare of tuna ($14) comes in a perfect cylinder hiding fat shrimp at the bottom, rounds of crisp, cold cuke, lemony creme fraiche and dabs of caviar and fluffs of Maine lobster garnishing the dish; skinny eggplant slices get layered with gooey moz and a cap of Mancini's signature balanced tomato sauce in a parmigiana melanzane ($12).
Entrees are preceded by a choice of four salads (the best of which is simple arugula with curls of crystalline, nutty Parmesan), and portions are ambitious enough, especially on the pastas, that leftovers are a foregone conclusion. Watch the nightly specials because their price tags can soar above $40, but for the most part prices are fair, from a linguine Florida ($24) absolutely chockablock with mussels, shrimp, calamari and baby clams in a buttery, winey sauce of sauteed cherry tomatoes, to a plate of light, pillowy gnocchi in a so-rich-I-need-to-lie-down Gorgonzola cheese sauce ($18).
Desserts ($8) seemed largely a repeat of what Mancini offered at Pensare: the archetypal tiramisu, a wedge of limoncello cake that is both rich and tart, a nice foil for coffee, and ice creams like pistachio flavor offered in tall parfait glasses.
None of this is about innovation. It is about tradition, about adherence to a fairly codified American interpretation of upscale Italian fare. But Mancini has the skill, and he has created the setting, where this feels eminently relevant.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.