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Bellini's brightens the Northwoods

If you've ever been stuck for a place to eat near Ruth Eckerd Hall or feared that the Northwoods area was the Bermuda Triangle of restaurants, listen up.

The Nibbler has promising news and it goes by the name of G. Bellini's Brick Oven & Rotisserie (2544 McMullen-Booth Road; 724-5716; good wheelchair access): Modern Italian, uptown setting, trendy touches like olive oil on the table, goat cheese pizza, grappa, and best of all, a lot of food for around $10.

I'm as surprised and pleased as anyone. For five years, the intersection of McMullen-Booth and Enterprise roads has struck the Nibbler as an inexplicable dead zone. It's a sophisticated corner of Tampa Bay, with lots of posh shops, but the restaurants rarely measured up _ or stayed open (Three more went dark this year).

At first, Bellini's sounded to me like a chain cutely named after the trendy peach and champagne drink. Actually the origin is quite personal: Owners Jeff Isel and Roger Green were G.I.'s together in Italy where they met Guido Bellini, a Pisa restaurateur, who inspired this suburban trattoria decades later. Besides, my waiter had never heard of a Bellini cocktail (although the bartender does make them).

So, although the place is barely a month old and not yet in perfect shape, it has good heart and flavor and that's already winning a big following.

There's rich carbonara, al fredo and gorgonzola pesto and puttanesca but even a simple pasta like penne with Bolognese sauce was tangy and filling, with more meat than tomato ($4.95 as an appetizer, $8.95 as an entree).

Roast chicken, a signature item, wasn't quite what I expected. The oak-fired rotisserie gave it the tenderness and taste of a smoked bird rather than the usual herb-roasting.

Normally it comes with rosemary potatoes but mine was served with angel hair and crisp vegetables, so I didn't get the herb taste I wanted. Still it's a good meal and a great bargain ($7.95 for a half chicken).

One item that does need work is foccacia: Mine was overcooked so that the crust tasted fried; I like it just brushed with olive oil and herbs.

The rest of the trappings are smartly done: sharp, young staff; clean light and white decor and a wine list with 20 bottles less than $20 (and $2.95 by the glass). And pizza from a brick oven.

In this neck of the woods, that's great news.

So write down that name and if you plan to work it into a concert visit, call ahead.

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