When it comes to restaurant designations, Italy has plenty.
There’s the osteria, a no-frills locale you might stumble upon while wandering through the Tuscan countryside. On the other end of the spectrum, a more sophisticated affair could be celebrated at a ristorante, a setting better suited to a slightly more upscale occasion.
Somewhere in the middle, there’s the trattoria. Loosely translated as a tavern, the concept is probably closer to its French cousin, the bistro — more casual than a ristorante but not as rustic and fly-by-your-seat as the osteria. A neighborhood spot that’s welcoming and familiar; upscale in quality, but not in its overall approach.
I thought about these classifications while dining at Sophia’s Cucina + Enoteca, a new Italian restaurant that opened on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District earlier this summer.
Though the restaurant’s name translates to “kitchen and wine bar,” this feels like a modern trattoria. It it also a promising neighborhood restaurant, a place where I would feel equally comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt or a little black dress.
It’s also not an entirely new concept for owners Kelly and Alex Rodriguez. The couple own nearby wine bar and charcuterie darling Lolita’s Wine Market, and for several years they ran the Italian-Mediterranean concept Luce Enoteca in Columbus, Ohio.
Lolita’s and Sophia’s are distinct, but the similarities are there: Both spots are named after the couple’s dogs (Lola and Sophie, respectively); both prominently feature wine, cheese and charcuterie; and both have a long communal seating area that anchors the space and fosters a social rather than intimate vibe.
Beyond the list of cured meats, cheeses and little delicious pickled things (a full spread of all three will run you $32), the menu wanders confidently into the contemporary Italian landscape. Rather than focus on any one regional cuisine, the dishes here feel more like updated Italian classics, with a few creative tweaks thrown in along the way.
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Take the carpaccio ($14), where razor-thin slices of Wagyu beef sit beneath a handful of nutty arugula, juicy heirloom tomatoes and artichokes. The dish is showered with thick shavings of Parmesan and a healthy dusting of black pepper, both of which deliver a sharp bite while capers add a salty pop. Ribbons of truffle aioli and a thin drizzle of sweet fig balsamic glaze offer the final pizazz. A minimalist’s carpaccio this is not, but the decadent presentation makes for a dish that I’d order again and again.
The menu feels designed both for sharing and for those who might prefer to order their own entree. Pastas, sourced from local purveyor Tampasta, hover around $13 to $16 and are portioned in a way that feels perfect for a solo diner, perhaps when paired with a glass of wine off the exclusively Italian list. (I particularly liked the earthy Rocca del Aglianico from Campania.)
Beyond wine, Sophia’s boasts a pretty solid cocktail operation, with creative drinks toting cheeky names like Beet My Ash ($10) — a smoky libation packing mezcal and tequila, with beet shrub that imparts both a sweet flavor and a bright fuchsia hue. Also good is the Lola ($10), a boozy rye-based potion that’s flavored with Earl Grey-infused vermouth and orange bitters.
Among the more shareable items are the puffy flatbreads called pizzettas, which crisp in the oven and arrive chewy and cheesy and are likely to disappear within minutes. The quattro formaggio ($9) packs a powerhouse blend of melted Parmesan, mozzarella, ricotta and Gorgonzola cheeses and is topped with cherry tomatoes and sprinkled with a heavy hand of oregano and a drizzle of truffle oil.
Vegetables star mostly as sides, but an appetizer of artichoke hearts steals the show. The hearts arrive like little bronzed drumettes, flash-fried in a light Peroni beer batter so that the edges of the leaves are crispy but not heavy. They’re served in a shallow bowl with olive oil, bright lemony yogurt and sun-dried tomato and olive tapenade. It’s a simple and delicious take that hits all the right notes.
Larger plates feel more akin to traditional entrees, but at a much lower price point than one might expect, given the healthy portion size.
Saltimboca, a preparation usually seen with veal or chicken, is applied to sauteed gulf prawns on a bed of smoked Gouda polenta, all of it tucked beneath a rich Marsala sauce with bits of prosciutto tossed in ($17). Though the polenta skews a little salty, the accompanying Granny Smith apple and frisee salad offers a tart crunch that helps to brighten the dish.
Two large double-cut lamb chops ($23) are served rubbed in fennel and coriander, grilled until medium-rare and served atop a medley of Brussels sprouts leaves and fingerling potatoes. Also good is the daily risotto ($13), which on one visit featured a sweet grilled corn medley made with pancetta, tomato confit and a zesty citrus butter.
For dessert, expect both classics like tiramisu and items with a more contemporary twists, like the limoncello cheesecake ($9), a creamy treat reminiscent of lemon curd, framed by crunchy Italian wedding cookies.
The restaurant’s physical space is still undergoing some changes, in part due to a construction overhaul on the building’s exterior. Inside, additional sound-proofing measures are underway, which is good, because the acoustics do need some work. On my most recent visit, the restaurant was quite loud, and the bright and lively space filled up quickly.
In the coming months, the facade’s makeover will include an outdoor patio with a considerable amount of extra seating — the final puzzle piece that will make Sophia’s a truly great neighborhood restaurant.
If you go
2439 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 440-7764; sophiascucina.com
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Prices: Antipasti and flatbreads, $9 to $14; pasta and entrees, $13 to $23
Recommended dishes: beef carpaccio; lamb chops; limoncello cheesecake