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  1. Best Restaurants

Best pasta in Tampa Bay

Our picks include old school spots as well as modern takes on Italian cuisine.

Il Ritorno

Charred Brussel and Corn Tagliatelle. [CHERIE DIEZ | Times]

Review restaurants in a market long enough and you see audacious young chefs grow up, expand their families, buy their first house, grow and renovate their restaurant, reflect on what they learned from mentors and distill their own personal style into something as distinctive as a thumbprint. I just learned that David Benstock’s middle name is Lazer, and it feels appropriate because he increasingly has laserlike focus. Since its expansion and remodel in 2017 (Fisher Price-sized kitchen blown out, new private dining space, great exhibition-kitchen bar seating), his restaurant Il Ritorno has dialed its service level and wine program way up and has offered one of the area’s most incisive signature five-course tasting menus (a reasonable $75, $45 more with wine pairings). Benstock can’t walk away from some of his signature dishes - the short rib mezzaluna, capellini nero, white truffle risotto - but he continues to push ahead with innovative seafood and game presentations. To all the Yelpers who grouse “this is too expensive, the portions too small,” I would ask you to watch Benstock plate a dish, watch how his squad assembles around him to assist, really look at the finished product in all its carefully composed glory. Thoughtfully sourced, expertly prepared food is not cheap. It can’t be. He also does a pull-out-all-stops chef’s bar menu; it’s now full bar and recently opened for Sunday dinner. ilritornodowntown.com

Address: 449 Central Ave. N, No. 101, St. Petersburg

Phone: (727) 897-5900

Price: $$$

Cena

Truffle Pasta with chanterelle mushrooms, spaghettini pasta, Perigord shaved truffles and pecorino romano. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]

Chef Michael Buttacavoli has a lot going on these days. He’s going to New York to promote the new Tampa’s Table cookbook in which his recipes appear. He’s going to Spain to hunt truffles, and to Sicily to get together with a Michelin-starred chef. Meanwhile, on the home front, Cena, the Channel District restaurant where he has been the executive chef since its launch in 2013, completed a lovely renovation in April, trading somewhat antiseptic decor for warm pigeon-gray walls, black-and-white photos and restful monochromatic design features. Buttacavoli was the chef de cuisine at SideBern’s for eight years under Jeannie Pierola and was the chef at Council Oak at the Hard Rock after that, where he hooked up with dynamo Cena pastry chef Evan Schmidt. Together they have honed an effective and affecting short menu of Italian regional dishes, from punchy antipasti to pastas and risotti, many offered in half portions, and secondi that are as stylishly pretty as any around (also, almost everything is under $30). The dolci change frequently, but there’s often something that’s a riff on a macaron, something trifle-ish or tiramisulike, maybe a cheesecake, all of it with flying buttresses and molded chocolate wings and spaceship add-ons. cenatampa.com

Address: 1208 E Kennedy Blvd., Tampa

Phone: (813) 374-8840

Price: $$-$$$

Donatello

Linguini ai Frutti di Mare with calamari, shrimp, clams, mussels and scallops in a garlic white wine sauce. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]

I ordered the food. I selected the wine. I asked for the check. I paid the bill. And yet, every time our waiter came to the table he addressed only my husband. I fumed. My husband rolled his eyes, slunk out to the car; I was going to make a scene. (We’ve been married a long time.) When I asked the waiter, he shrugged his shoulders and in a thick Italian accent said, “Ninety-five percent of the time the man orders and pays the bill.” Ladies get long-stemmed red roses, their dates pick up the tabs, it’s the way things have always been at Donatello. It’s hard to know how to put that in context, especially given that the very best pasta I ate in 2018 was here, one that I think back on as a perfect dish. It’s the tagliatelle alla Kathy, a standard for years, with velvety but toothsome house-made green noodles, mushrooms and ham in just enough slightly pink cream sauce, the whole thing causing the pasta itself to take center stage, a rarity in American restaurants. Their linguini al pesto is excellent, as is their linguini with clams, as is their Caesar salad (no longer made tableside), as is their ricotta cheesecake. Donatello feeds about a thousand foster kids and families every Thanksgiving; they host live opera from Opera Tampa; they have the most flattering pink-hued lighting of any restaurant around. But here’s a thought in 2019: Maybe give the check to he, or she, who requested it? donatellotampa.com

Address: 232 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa

Phone: (813) 875-6660

Price: $$$

Pia’s Trattoria

Farfalle Pesto Verde with traditional Neapolitan green pesto, roasted pine nuts and shaved parmesan. [LARA CERRI | Times]

Something is going on at Pia’s. Since 2006, it has been Gulfport’s anchor place for moderately priced straightforward Italian pastas, salads and more substantive fare on a weekly changing seasonal menu. The past couple of times I’ve visited it’s clear that the menu is inching its way toward the vegan side. This likely says something about the overarching desires of their Gulfport clientele, or maybe about owners Pia and Tom Goff themselves. These days you might find vegan tofu- and farro-stuffed peppers or vegan curried butternut squash soup with walnuts. Don’t worry, you’ll still be able to avail yourself of the skillet lasagna (recently Pia is using Seminole Pride beef, the cows’ whole life cycle spent in Florida), penne pesto and spaghetti bolognese, now all of the house pastas made on the snazzy Arcobaleno pastamaker and offered in a gluten-free version. The air is perfumed just slightly with garlic and the paraffin from dozens of drippy, flickering candles; the covered patio is rustic and hung with string lights. There are faded floral tablecloths and somebody’s black-and-white baby pictures, spills of fuchsia bougainvillea filigreed down the wall. It’s like Under the Tuscan Sun without Diane Lane’s annoying This Old House-but-sexier smugness. piastrattoria.com

Address: 3054 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport

Phone: (727) 327-2190

Price: $$

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