Heart-healthy cooking is a fine idea, but pizza without cheese? It didn't sound too appealing to Joanie Shumate, co-owner of Bella's Trattoria, where crisp pizzas from the wood-burning oven can be loaded with four cheeses: mozzarella, Romano, fontina or ricotta cheese. "It breaks my heart because I love to eat," she said "I thought nobody will ever try them. They'll be so bored."
But skipping cheese is a great way to cut fat (and can be done by most any pizzeria), so when Shumate developed new healthful options on Bella's new menu, she added cheeseless pizzas and calzones.
"They're selling like hotcakes" Shumate said, and she has warmed to them herself.Cheeseless pizzas are more like foccacio with herbal flavors and hearty toppings of chicken and spinach ($6.95) or eggplant, olives and sun-dried tomatoes ($5.75).
Bella's (1413 Howard Ave., Tampa, and 13505 Icot Blvd., Clearwater) also added low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-sodium entrees by tossing clams, shrimp, chicken or vegetables with fresh tomato sauce, basil or a little olive oil and garlic with pasta ($6.75 to $8.50). Better to use the penne, macaroni or orecchiette; they're made without the eggs Bella uses in its fresh pasta.
The Nibbler followed another alternative, seafood with grilled zucchini, mushrooms and onions ($9.75) and tomato sauce and an herbed yogurt. The fresh veggies had snap and were a fine substitute for pasta, but the shrimp needed a minute or two more on the grill, and the yogurt was flat and unpleasant.
Still it's a good idea and tastes better than you expect. Plus Shumate says you can have a little cheese on your salad. "The way we grate it at the table, we get 27 servings out of one ounce. That's got to be okay."
On the Nibbler's last swing, I found dining in Citrus County a mix of country, city and so-so cooking _ and the best crabs and countryside scenery in the area. Still is, judging from samples at a culinary contest in Citrus Hills, that pitted white-coated chefs against good ol' barbecue cooks and oyster shuckers.
Best news seems to be the Plantation Inn and Golf Resort (Gulf Island Trail, Crystal River; (904) 795-4211), which imported a young Boston chef and a contemporary taste to the 30-year-old golf resort last year.
What the Plantation's Robert Anderson laid out at the contest could have copped a sweeps award, best in all three courses: smoked dolphin with a pineapple cilantro salsa for an appetizer; Athenian chicken with spinach, feta cheese and dill in filo dough; and puff pastry swans filled with chocolate mousse.
The menu at the Plantation is generally traditional: chops, steaks and seafood, but the specials show the nouvelle creativity. Dinner prices run $10.95 to $16.95.
Anderson retains a broad Boston accent and a longing for Maine lobsters but says he's glad to work with Florida seafood and produce.
The Nibbler's eager to sample some more.
TAMPA BAY BOUILLABAISE
The Nibbler's no unrestrained Francophile, but I'll admit they're right that the more things change the more they stay the same. Here's what's new:
Keegan's Seafood Grille, my favorite tiny seafood spot, has moved to larger digs, but I doubt expansion will spoil it. It moved only a few blocks north to the former site of Il Nido (1519 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach) and grew from 35 seats to 50.
New menu at the Heritage (256 Second St., St. Petersburg; 823-6382) will have fixed appetizers and desserts but change entrees every two weeks. Main courses won't be mainstream: Look for items such as pork with pear chutney and sweet potato cake or grilled tuna with apple fennel glaze ($13.95). Manager Amy Lutz has left to run restaurant Marrakesh at Epcot, but husband Tom remains the Heritage's proprietor.
Newest eatery over man-made lake in Countryside Square is Knickerbocker on the Water (2543 Countryside Blvd.; 725-5599). It opened two weeks ago and is the third Knickerbockers; others are in Myrtle Beach, S.C. and Milford, Conn. (The building began life as Penrod's and was most recently Pelican Pete's.) Menu includes salads, quiche, omelets, burgers and croissant sandwiches for light stuff; dinner entrees ($9.25 to $13.95) include fried and charbroiled seafood, chicken, steaks, combos and Italian dishes. Knickerbocker emphasizes large portions and serves until 1 a.m.
Village Inns on our coast are getting a facelift, removing roadsign orange for a color scheme of green, mulberry and mauve. It's on restaurants in St. Petersburg, St. Pete Beach and scheduled for 11 other locations here. Menu has changed, too, but not radically: Breakfasts and pies are still strong suits; more, fancier salads, sandwiches and chicken dishes are new.