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Restaurant review: Viva Napoli lovingly recreates Italian cuisine's greatest hits

MONICA HERNDON | Times Bucatini all' Amatriciana with panchetta and a cherry tomato sauce topped with pecorino romano at Viva Napoli on June 21, 2018, in Tampa, Fla.
Published Jun. 25, 2018

TAMPA

According to Nation's Restaurant News, Italian continues to be the country's most beloved ethnic cuisine. I've fallen out of love and then gotten moony-eyed again several times over the past decade or so. It's a cuisine that is manhandled, jerry-rigged, misinterpreted frequently, marked by gargantuan sadness-mounds of pasta, overcooked and swimming in sauce. Carbo-phobia made a dent in our collective enthusiasm, but in the past bunch of years we've kept the flirtation alive by focusing on regional Italian. The peppers of Calabria, the pizzas of Campania, chickpea flatbread in Liguria, fregola in Sardinia. Oh, and Roman food has been red hot recently.

The Tampa Bay area has seen an uptick in small, mom-and-pop, ambitious regional Italian spots: Casa Cosenza in Oldsmar, Acqua Alta in Clearwater, Piccola Italia Bistro in Tampa (Yelp is wild for this place; I thought it bobbled a little but the prices are good).

Simona Sarpa's grandparents owned a restaurant in Naples. She worked in Italy and Switzerland before landing in Tampa and deciding to open a little spot using family recipes. When Viva Napoli opened, it was BYOB and there could be timing lags and inconsistencies. They've smoothed things out, Sarpa and chef Francesco Sorrentino working in tandem to offer a very Napoli-like experience.

It's personal, intimate, charming, homey — the kind of restaurant every Italophile perseverates about while scrolling through iPhone trip photos.

You're going to get pizza (the wood-fired oven built in Naples, with its puffy cloud trompe l'oeil painting, is too enticing), but a one-of-each approach with all the menu sections is wise. These pizzas are the thin, tender kind with a fat cornicione and charry black speckles all over, their tomato sauce a simple puree of San Marzanos and the cheese either parm or a bouncy fior di latte (an Italian mozzarella made from cow's milk).

The flour is finely ground Italian 00, a soft wheat without strong glutens so the finished product isn't super chewy. The margherita is a fine testing-the-waters pizza ($12), just sauce, moz, basil and a swirl of olive oil, but we might have broken a land speed record in dispatching the ortolana (peppers, eggplant, artichokes, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, fior di latte, fresh basil and olive oil; $15) as well as a crudo e rucola (prosciutto di parma, fior di latte, cherry tomatoes, parm and olive oil with a big pouf of arugula added at the end; $17).

These are about two-person pizzas, perfect if you want to start with a salad like the tricolore (grape tomatoes, fresh moz, arugula and a zingy but uncomplicated balsamic vinaigrette; $9) or a shallow bowl piled with mussels in a slightly spicy, garlicky, wine broth dotted with soft, sweet cherry tomatoes ($12). If you've got a few folks in your party, or are feeling inordinately peckish, add in a couple of pastas: maybe the plush wedge of lasagna ($16) dense with crumbled sausage and a swath of fresh ricotta, or else the gnocchi alla Sorrentina, a crock of housemade gnocchi in a bright tomato sauce tucked under a mantle of molten fresh mozzarella, $16, known to cause narcolepsy if eaten in its entirety.

Our favorite dish is something we make at home frequently because it can be assembled lickety-split with stuff we have on hand: thinly sliced chicken scallopini, pan sauteed and gussied with lemon, butter and a handful of puckery little capers ($16). Balanced, perfectly cooked and tender — it was a textbook version. The rest of the short secondi list is variations on chicken and veal scallopini; might be nice to have one seafood offering on the non-pizza-and-pasta part of the menu.

Viva Napoli has added a short, well-priced beer and wine list, and offers discounted beverages and appetizers from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday to Thursday. Sarpa is likely to serve you, frequently guiding and explicating as needed. The best of the desserts is an airy, fluffy tiramisu ($8), not too strong on the booze or coffee, and best enjoyed with a little cup of espresso ($2.50) with a nice crema, that signature tan-colored foam, sitting up top.

Even if you've never ventured to Naples, Viva Napoli will feel familiar, its menu a lineup of greatest hits. What makes it a gem is the kitchen's execution and Sarpa's presence in the dining room. And so our love affair with the cuisine continues.

Contact Laura Reiley at
lreiley@tampabay.com or
(727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.
She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.

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