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The bar at Villa Bellini? Bellissimo!

After driving past Clearwater's Villa Bellini several times, I developed a hunch that the restaurant might have a worthwhile bar. I often have good hunches.

Villa Bellini is an authentic Italian restaurant showcasing the cuisine of chef Ciro Mancini, formerly of Bellini and Pensare Italian Bistro, which were both in Dunedin. Chef Ciro's dinner menu is available online, but there's no mention of cocktails.

That's a shame, because it turns out the beverage program at Villa Bellini may deserve as much attention as the food.

Villa Bellini is housed in a sprawling, multiroom building that once belonged to Ceviche and Tio Pepe before it. It dates back to 1929, and it feels like a large estate from that era, with dark-wood floors, stuccoed archways, ­chandeliers and tiled cutaways housing marble statues. The walls are decorated with mirrors and moody, classical oil paintings. Out front, there's a lantern-lit front patio shaded by Spanish moss-draped oaks. An odd fit on Gulf to Bay, maybe, but once inside, you'll forget all about it.

Take a look behind the bar and you'll see that Villa Bellini is worth a visit even if you're not in the market for a fancy Italian dining experience.

First off, beer. There are five on draft and several nice bottle selections, including a reasonable number of local brews, which will handily add some oomph to a big dinner but probably won't warrant a trip otherwise.

The wine selection is voluminous, neatly organized by style, and with many wines available by the glass. If you're having trouble choosing from the extensive lineup, the menu includes pairing recommendations from Chef Ciro.

The spirit selection is fairly massive, with a strong emphasis on whiskey (especially bourbon and American whiskey), as well as cordials, apertifs and amaros. You'll find lots of Italian goods, including some common (Cynar, an artichoke-flavored amaro; and Villa Massa limoncello, a traditional sweet liqueur flavored with lemons), and some less so, like Evangelista Punch Abruzzo, a sweet, herbal liqueur that's served on ice during warm weather, and served warm when it's cold.

Finally, the cocktails. Bingo! The fact that Villa Bellini's cocktail menu is not offered online and isn't included on the print menu — it's available at the restaurant via iPad — is absolutely criminal. Although Villa Bellini is a restaurant first, the cocktails are second to none in Clearwater and easily rival the fare of the area's more well-known cocktail-centric bars.

I started with Il Bandito, a barrel-aged cocktail made with High West Double Rye, bittersweet Foro amaro and Luxardo maraschino cherry ­liqueur. It's a remarkable drink: rich, smooth, and subtly sweet, with interesting cherry notes from both the barrel-aging and the Luxardo.

I also sampled the Blueberry Ginger Fizz, which is more complex than the name suggests. It has a pleasantly perfume-y nose, with a hint of bubble gum. A mix of Stoli blueberry vodka and Canton ginger liqueur provides a fruity, spicy base, while fresh lime, orange spice tea, blueberry syrup and club soda round out the rest. Crazy ­refreshing.

Of course, there's also a Bellini on the menu, but this one is a ­Sinatra Bellini — a version of the classic prosecco-lemon-and-peach purée spritzer that features a splash of ­Sinatra's preferred whiskey: Jack Daniels.

The list goes on, with a variety of inspired house creations, in addition to well-picked classics, like Trader Vic's Mai Tai, the Aviation cocktail, and the Corpse Reviver #2. There's a classic Negroni, as well as a lighter house twist, which uses Lillet Blanc in place of sweet vermouth, and Aperol in place of Campari. Make no mistake: It's a serious list.

This is a hunch that paid off handsomely. I wouldn't typically imagine an upscale Italian restaurant to be high on my list of places to pop in for a nice cocktail, but after a trip to Villa Bellini, that's exactly where it stands.

— jg@saintbeat.com; @WordsWithJG.

Villa Bellini

2930 Gulf to Bay ­Boulevard, Clearwater 33759. (727)754-9848 villabellinirestaurant.com

The vibe: A classic Italian restaurant with an unexpectedly strong cocktail program.

Food: Soups, sides, and salads, $3-$9; appetizers, $10-$25; entrées, $18-$65; ­desserts, $8.

Booze: Beer, wine, and liquor. Beer, $3.50-$10; wine, $6-$25 by the glass and $28-$320 by the bottle; liquor, $9-$45, although Rémy Martin Louis XIII runs $150 per ounce. Happy hour is Tuesday-Friday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., ­featuring $4 house wines and wells.

Specialty: Aside from an extensive wine and liquor selection, the house cocktail list is well worth perusing. My pick is Il Bandito, which is a four-week barrel-aged cocktail featuring High West Double Rye whiskey, Foro Italian amaro and Luxardo maraschino liqueur.

Hours: Tuesday-Thursday,

5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Monday, closed.

The bar at Villa Bellini? Bellissimo! 09/15/16 [Last modified: Thursday, September 15, 2016 3:22pm]
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