ST. PETERSBURG — Chef Fabio Viviani is headed to the ‘burg — again.
When news broke in 2019 that the celebrity chef and Top Chef contestant was planning a restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg, it created a big buzz.
At the time, Viviani was involved in several notable Tampa spots, including the celebrated Osteria Bar + Kitchen and the Latin-inspired Mole y Abuela. A new Italian restaurant on the opposite side of the bay was welcome news to many St. Pete residents.
That restaurant, La Pergola, never came to fruition.
Viviani cut his ties to Tampa Bay in summer 2020, following a widely publicized scandal involving Nocturnal Hospitality Group, the local management company running three of his restaurants. All of those restaurants were shuttered, and future plans for La Pergola were quashed.
Viviani parted ways with the group after screenshots shared widely online showed the company’s co-owner, Lanfranco Pescante, commenting “Just shoot them all” on social media in reference to citywide protests following the death of George Floyd. There were also screenshots of text messages allegedly from Pescante that included racial slurs.
Now, Viviani is back in downtown St. Pete with a new restaurant — and new partners.
Same space, different name.
Taverna Costale, a coastal Italian restaurant, opens Jan. 16 inside 200 Central Ave., the towering office building at the corner of Central Avenue and Second Street.
Viviani, 43, said he was drawn to the St. Petersburg location for its vibrant downtown restaurant scene and ample access to foot traffic. Counting a handful of projects slated to open this year, his current portfolio is just shy of 40 restaurants, with locations all over the country.
“We like to be on a busy street on a busy corner in a busy downtown,” Viviani said. “If you look at the St. Pete market, aside from a couple of small Italian restaurants, there is not really a place like this.”
The restaurant’s proximity to the water is reflected in the overall concept, which Viviani said is heavily focused on fish and seafood, both imported and local.
Viviani said the restaurant will also feature homemade pasta and craft cocktails and he described the space’s aesthetic as industrial, with a rustic look and a “refined but not stuffy ambiance.”
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The restaurant, which can seat roughly 235 people, occupies a 6,000-square-foot space inside the office building. The spot’s unique footprint, formerly home to Raymond James & Associates, features an indoor-outdoor zinc bar with seating along Central Avenue.
Drinking and socializing is half the appeal here, and the approachable wine list (heavy on Italian labels) features roughly 35 different wines by the glass. Signature cocktails include several creative spins on Italian classics, including the Spritz Veneziano — made with Aperol, prosecco, watermelon and strawberry puree.
Though Viviani designs the menus at all his restaurants, executive chef Cristian Ruiz and executive sous chef Marcella Milillo are helming day-to-day culinary operations at the St. Pete newcomer. The dinner menu features a selection of antipasti (small and shared plates), salads and pizza, pastas and larger entrees.
Starters on the opening menu include a grilled bone marrow served with balsamic onions and citrus gremolata; charred Spanish octopus with herbed potatoes and celery salad; and a burrata with smoked pancetta, pistachios and tomato jam.
Thick-crust, Roman-style pizzas arrive with toppings like house-cured pancetta, Italian sausage, ‘nduja and mozzarella, while salads include a Romaine heart Caesar tossed with sun-dried tomatoes and shaved pumpernickel croutons.
Pastas made in-house are a highlight, and include a rigatoni bolognese, a seafood-packed squid ink paccheri and a bucatini dish served with meatballs and ricotta.
Entree-sized plates lean much larger and feature a grilled salmon served with tomatoes in white wine sauce, crispy potatoes and Brussels sprouts; a chicken thigh marsala with mushrooms, potatoes and broccolini; and a giant chianti-braised pork shank served with Parmesan polenta and a pistachio gremolata.
For Viviani, who is flying in from his home in Chicago to attend Taverna Costale’s grand opening this weekend, the restaurant’s launch signals a welcome return to the Tampa Bay area.
Viviani did not want to discuss the split with his former partners.
“It was what it was — we had to move on,” he said. “We have built and have been building a business based on inclusiveness, love for everybody and respect for everybody. I’m not going to comment on what happened…but we had to be quick in taking a stand. And though it did cost us a lot of money…I do believe that some things are more important than actual business.”
Viviani’s new partners at Taverna Costale — Anthony Sandstrom and Brian Henry — have worked with Viviani in the past on several restaurants, including Chuck Lager’s American Tavern in Wesley Chapel. They are slated to open two other Chuck Lager locations in the Tampa Bay area this year, at the new Westshore Marina District and in Oldsmar.
Taverna Costale isn’t a chain concept. But Viviani said the St. Petersburg restaurant will act as a testing ground for potential expansion of the brand in other areas.
“We feel that this is a concept that has legs,” Viviani said. “It is a concept that lends itself very well to other towns.”
Taverna Costale is located at 200 Central Ave., Suite 165. Beginning Sunday, Taverna Costale will serve dinner from 3-11 p.m. Sunday though Wednesday and 3 p.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday.