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A Lakeside slice of Italy

If you knew Bruno at the beach or Bruno in the city, you'll still be surprised by Bruno at the lake.

Bruno Gallace's most obvious surprise is that he has a lake at all. For years there's not been much to look at on this dreary stretch of Clearwater-Largo Road, let alone a view of a tree-shaded lake. Yet pull into this little cluster of boutique shops and enter Bruno's Lakeside, and almost all the tables inside and out have a view of a lake.

A lake you never knew was there. Sure it's small, maybe only a lakelet not big enough to have a name. If it doesn't, call it Lake Bruno.

Make that Lago di Bruno, because Gallace's other surprise is the food. Although the menu seems standard at first glance, a little exploration turns up subtle tastes of authenticity and Italian sophistication.

They start with bread, as they should. Bruno and various other Gallaces have been involved in local restaurants for years, but he came here years ago as a baker. Now his son does the baking in the wholesale bakery in St. Petersburg, and his daughters run a pastry shop and deli next to the Largo restaurant, selling breads, Danish and rugalah.

But the bread on my table, a boule with thin but crackling crisp crust and a tart flavor, was the best bread I've had in any of Bruno's restaurants, a worthy slice of the modern bread revival.

There must be more than bread and there is, thanks to the work of chefs. Salad of marinated seafood _ shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels and remarkably tender slices of scungilli _ make a refreshing cold antipasto and probably could be a full lunch for a conscientious diner. I'd give it a dash of lemon and more olive oil, but eating it under the oaks, it still reminded me of a lovely light lunch I stumbled upon in an impossibly junky bit of wetlands around Lake Garda.

From Largo to an Italian lago is quite a stretch, but at Bruno's, something tempted me to such fanciful thoughts.

Maybe that there was opera, not Sinatra, on the sound system, or that the white walls only had a few pieces of art and minimal gewgaws, or the quiet hospitality. Of course it's not actually a restaurant in Italy, just pretty good for us. It'll seem stuffy and designed for the early bird crowd to some; to me it showed taste, a shock in itself.

The bulk of the menu you've seen before, unexciting staples from red-sauce pastas to carbonara and puttanesca and veal dishes on the higher end, but they are well done. Veal was thin, of good quality and quite tender, the Marsala and mushrooms smooth and straightforward. Marinara on the rigatoni was bright and clearly fresh, and a rose sauce enriched with cream on spinach ravioli was seductive (the spinach-cheese ravioli was undercooked and seemed tough).

But those are staples. What distinguished my meals was a rarity like a properly cooked risotto (it takes 30 minutes _ and should). In mine, porcini mushrooms, rice and butter had melded into that perfect colloidal state that has nothing to do with the stir-fry versions created so often. The richness of the porcini was infused into every grain.

Then there was chicken scarpiella, the Italian roots of which may not go farther back than 20th century New York, but the combination of sausage, olives, mushrooms and potatoes makes chicken a robust and savory dish.

I also made a fine entree out of the availability of jumbo lump crab with fettucine. The kitchen offered it with an alfredo sauce, but I ordered it with fettucine, olive oil and garlic and a hint of cream. Simple but still rich _ and close to traditional Italian eating.

If you want additional bites for a starter, fried calamari dusted in cornmeal is a crisp rendition. In the caprese salad, tomatoes were well chosen but mozzarella a bit dull and dry.

The wine list goes beyond Tuscany's Chiantis and cabernets to include Piedmont reds and my favorite easy-drinking rosso from the South, Montepulciano d'Abruzzi, to quaff by the carafe.

Gallace presides over the service, as always, and his hospitality seems genuinely welcoming to both his regulars and newcomers. The only problem on my visits came during a busy, short-handed lunch, when food moved slowly.

But then there are worse ways to wait than sitting by a tiny lake in the middle of Largo whiling away an afternoon thinking about Italy. I hope Gallace, and other restaurateurs, will keep thinking about their native country and exploring its wonderful cooking.

We're hungry for more, not just sauces red and white, but the good cheeses and sausages to go with the bread, fresh vegetables and mushrooms, and the simple sauces and distinctive pastas in the many regional flavors of Italy.

We're developing a taste for them.

REVIEW

BRUNO'S LAKESIDE ITALIAN RESTAURANT

552 Clearwater-Largo Road Largo

(727) 581-7993

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday

Reservations: Yes

Credit cards: Most

Details: Smoking section provided; beer, wine.

Prices: Dinners, $10.95 to $19.95

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