When I first started writing about Pane Rustica about a decade ago, a headline might have been something like "For Those in Knead," or, if I were feeling extra hammy, "Beauty and the Yeast." In my mind it was a bakery first and foremost, one of a miniscule number of Tampa Bay bakeries doing ambitious, artisanal bread.
Owners Kevin and Karyn Kruszewski are still baking 8,000 loaves a week, supplying bread to businesses like Ocean Prime, Ruth's Chris, Z Grille, the Dalí Museum and Nordstrom Bistro. But its focus has shifted year by year.
Kevin Kruszewski calls it culinary Darwinism. Pane Rustica does a ton of catering — baby showers are big — and there is a party room onsite. Two years ago, the couple annexed the produce section of the Village Health Market to make a full bar attached to the cafe. Still, every few years rumors begin to swirl that the Kruszewskis are opening Rustica Due (well, that's my name suggestion) somewhere else in the Tampa Bay area.
About that, he recently demurred, "Right now I'm chilling a little bit, getting through the holidays. Maybe next year. I'm really good at doing simple things well."
Nothing simple about it.
By day business is largely stupendous breads, pizzas, cookies, croissants, sticky buns, and scones. But Wednesday through Saturday nights the lot teams with predatory late-model sedans looking for spots. It may well be the loudest restaurant in Tampa, the glamorous clientele an unusual blend of young and old. They come to see and be seen in a dining room that is dim verging on dark, with rustic wooden tables that can seem too large to allow a fighting chance at conversation. (Hint: if you get one of the big tables, a server might remove a leaf if you ask nicely.)
Chris Cresanta has been the big gun in the kitchen for six years or so, having come from SideBern's and Café Dufrain. With a pedigree like that, it's no surprise that he spends a lot of energy on sourcing food locally and sustainably. (Meanwhile, Ruslan Dubas, the man in front of the pizza oven, maintains a singular focus on the thin-crust pizzas, one variety offered every evening, many offered at lunch.)
In a restaurant with many moving pieces, I will say the biggest challenge is consistency. I went recently on a Thursday night and had a number of solid dishes but nothing that sang. Then I went back the next night and it was Swoon City, the kitchen's new hardwood grill sending out sheer genius from the grilled asparagus with Vermont white cheddar fondue with a restrained hint of truffle oil ($9), to what is just about Tampa Bay's best burger ($15), offered that night accessorized with sauteed mushrooms, arugula, gooey taleggio, oven-dried tomato and a swirl of oniony aioli.
There's a long, seasonally changing one-page regular menu at night, with a second page of daily-changing goodies. These tend to be a collection of showstoppers. Picture a bed of smooth parsnip puree, studded with roasted Brussels sprout halves and topped with a seared fillet of Virginia striped bass with a delicate orange lavender scent and a dribble of blood orange coulis ($30). A little sweet, a little nutty, super savory, lots of textural interest. Just a great dish.
The wine list is a compelling read, with fairly marked offerings at most price points (plus a reserve list of suitably cultish cabs), but Pane Rustica's bartenders compete ably with a short list of signature and classic cocktails, from the aptly named Bee's Knees (Bombay Sapphire, honey syrup, lemon juice) to the also deceptively simple Ridgemont Sour (bourbon with St. Germain and grapefruit).
The bar reads like a big-city hangout, this time of year with date night black dresses and holiday-party spangles. In fact, the Kruszewskis have kept up with contemporary food aesthetics across the board — ingredient-driven food, hip decor and knowledgeable servers — in a place that South Tampa resoundingly calls its own. Now let's see what the Kruszewskis get up to in 2013.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter at @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.