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Great tastes closer to home

The color scheme in this strip-center slot _ hot blues and yellows and a rainbow of tinted waters _ may be louder than the whirrrr of the smoothie machine and the general clatter and chatter.

Waiters are in spiky wet-head haircuts and pumped up black T-shirts that say Ciccio & Tony's, but they all look like they could be Tony. The crowd _ and it is a crowd _ is in T-shirts and polos too, Thank-God-Casual-Friday's-Over wear, some juggling new babies as well as cell phones and hand-held computers.

Menu starts with New Edge fare such as chicken and black bean wraps sliced in sushi-style rolls, goat cheese salads, herb-crusted tilapia, penne and wild mushrooms and ginseng-spiked raspberry smoothies. But there's big-city-Little-Italy fare, too, including linguine with fresh clams and lotsa garlic. "That's real tiramisu," a voice from Queens pronounces.

Downtown attitude?

Hardly. This is a taste of the new suburban stir-fry, in this case sampled at Ciccio & Tony's in the edge of the city called New Tampa (16019 Tampa Palms Blvd., Tampa, (813) 975-1222). Nearby is a mini-McDonald's but also a sushi bar, a taqueria and more as hip dining moves north on both sides of the bay.

In Pinellas, check out RockWaters Grill & Bar (38954 U.S.19 N, Tarpon Springs; (727) 945-0777), the former Spring Cove family restaurant that just reopened with dappled sienna walls and glossy black and white trimmings. Or its menu: beggar's purses, noodle pillows, double-lobe duck breast, and sesame seared scallops, with goat cheese, Thai sriachi and sun-dried blueberries scattered.

Down the road, a new lunch spot called Mecca (3235 Tampa Road, Palm Harbor; (727) 773-8839) has opened with a hip fusion of Italian panini sandwiches and the stuff of Asian noodle shops. "That's what we saw when we looked around in big cities" said Robert Stea, one of the partners.

Right, noodles are steaming on the urban dining scene, but here?

Indeed, as one of the founders of Blue Heron, Stea learned that there were sophisticated appetites in the far north 10 years ago.

For years the cooking revolution stalled in Pinellas at Sabal's (now Black Pearl) and Kelly's in Dunedin; then the Blue Heron and St. Larry's opened in Palm Harbor; most recently Sutherland Cafe and Travis have opened in Palm Harbor. In Hillsborough, pickings in Carrollwood and Northdale were slimmer: a satellite location of rg's failed to take hold.

"It was a shambles then," said RockWaters chef Christopher Lyons of the dining scene in northern Pinellas when he arrived 10 years ago. He helped start the old Raymond's in Northwoods, Frenchy's Mandalay Seafood Company and Sea Sea Riders. His current stretch of U.S. 19 had a Death Valley reputation for restaurateurs.

Now, however, the time has come for contemporary and upscale in north Pinellas. "We did something of a demographic study. This wasn't a total shot in the dark." Lyons said. There are younger people in the suburbs, they're too tired to cook and don't want to leave the neighborhood to drive to a restaurant row downtown or a mall. But they have a taste for something different.

"We do soba noodles in a coconut lemongrass broth," Lyons said. "You can go to Mise en Place in Tampa and get it 10 times a week. Not up here." (For the skeptical, he created combinations with small portions of entrees such as chicken achiote shrimp on matchstick veggies with a Manchego sauce.)

"I don't know why other people haven't explored this area."

Obviously some did. "You got the land of the chains," remembers Jeff Gigante, who grew up in St. Petersburg.

He is now part of Ciccio & Tony's, which is taking this opportunity to become a little chain itself. Gigante came back from New York five years ago with James Lanza to open a south Tampa branch of the Lanza family's restaurants. It has since expanded to a "wrapperia" in the Westshore Mall food court, the New Tampa location, next month in Carrollwood and then perhaps in St. Petersburg.

Underlying these movements is not a shift from one center or restaurant row to another _ the suburbs have always been prosperous _ but a change in critical mass. At one time, the limited demand for fresh and creative food supported only restaurants that were destinations or special occasions.

I prefer to hope we're on the verge of better eating in local restaurants everyday, everywhere.