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Neighborhood Italian and then some

First a word of Italian. Tartufo. It means truffle, and just as in English and French, the same word covers both the luxurious little mushroom and simple sweets that look just as plain but are heavenly rich inside.

At Vincenzo's you find both on the menu, not the $100 an ounce black truffles of Alba but at least the heady perfume of truffle oil and the decadence of porcini tucked into pastas and sauces, and gorgeous "truffles" of chocolate and lemon ice cream imported from Italy.

I don't mean this to scare you: Vincenzo's is not that long on truffles or particularly expensive. Its real strength is in old-fashioned pasta. It bakes a mean pizza, and the staff and clientele are dressed up only in the good nature of a friendly neighborhood place. But the cooking can still be rich, and when it's not, it's as filing as if Nonna herself were piling spaghetti into the bowl, urging "mangia, mangia."

I'm not sure I finished anything served me; I even gave up on an 8-ounce filet _ stuffed with slices of truffle cheese, a bit of prosciutto and rounded by a porcini mushroom cream.

Forget big helpings and the richer dishes if you can, and the menu is still distinguished by quality and care of preparation. The kitchen makes all its pastas and bakes its own bread; what it doesn't make it buys smartly, including beer from Dunedin and desserts from Italy.

That concern is a rare pleasure that will surprise those who have seen an endless number of shingles hung outside this space, most of them Italian, and most recently a tanning salon. It again has ornate murals (a villa on Lake Como, faux Michelangelo, etc.) and a lattice ceiling with silk leaves, but as Vincenzo's it tastes better and smells like a keeper. It is not however an entirely new venture _ the owners ran Di Franco's on Clearwater Beach for many years and after a five-year hiatus have returned with a grander view of Italian food.

You could just have an appetizer and leave happy. Fried calamari, of the salt-and-pepper crispy school, are as light and puffy as they can be done; the dipping sauce is the house blackened garlic marinara so homey you can taste the pan. It must be shared. For a smaller indulgence, try shrimp sambucca, with fresh, springy shrimp and a rose tomato cream spiked with Italian anisette and a couple of espresso beans; more subtle, still wicked.

Rigatoni, spaghetti, fettuccine and fusilli are all made here, and the freshness is tangibly different from dry pasta. There's a dangerous selection of sauces; I stuck with simple pomodoro, and at the server's suggestion, tossed in fresh mozzarella and Parmesan; this was too much.

Another straight-ahead pasta, fettuccine Bolognese, produced the meatiest sauce on record, beef, lamb and pork cooked with lots of tomato. Gnocchi is a lovely alternative, especially when the potato dumplings are as moist and delicate as they are here, but add alfredo sauce and even a side order will provide doggie bag pleasures.

Veal is fine stuff, good meat, tender and not the least overcooked (or overbreaded); mine was done in a house sauce, lemony with Parmesan cheese and grape tomatoes. Those tomatoes, light as they are and much as we love them, didn't work for me in this dish. Piccatta would have been great.

The only item that disappointed was a pizza, topped in the simplest and zestiest fashion _ capers and anchovies. The zest was there, but the crust was limp in the center and charred on the edges. It arrived on our table too soon, suggesting it hadn't cooked long enough. The fellow at the oven, which sits in front of the bar, seemed to know his fire-building and pizza-tossing, but this one just didn't get his best.

Desserts would seem off-limits after most meals, but Vincenzo's are small, elegant confections. The most familiar is the lemon ice inside a whole lemon, but its cousins the tartufos, frosted ice cream balls with rich centers, are their equal. A true ricotta cheesecake, loose, moist and not too sweet, was imported from Vincenzo's mom's kitchen.

Other trimmings were in proper order, too. Cheese grated at the table, homemade rolls, fresh asparagus and a modern salad of good greens with balsamic.

One could ask for more, perhaps one who had no shame. Vincenzo's is not rigorously Tuscan or Ligurian or robustly Sicilian; it's classically Italian-American, with the pizzas and red sauce dishes we've eaten for years plus the meaty and creamy fare we called northern Italian. It's all done with extra authenticity and a few gourmet indulgences and the same warmth that made us love Italian restaurants in the first place.

Better to ask for less _ and come more often.

Vincenzo's Ristorante Italiano

2524 McMullen Booth Road, Safety Harbor

(727) 726-5558

www.eatatvincenzos.com

Hours: 4 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday; 4 p.m. to midnight Saturday; 3 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday

Reservations: Suggested

Details: Full bar, restrooms accessible

Features: Outside seating, takeout

Prices: Pizza, $10 to $14; entrees, $12 to $25

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