The Tampa Bay restaurant scene has hit a certain kind of critical mass. For several years, rumors have swirled that the nation's celebrity chefs were considering this part of the Florida peninsula as "the next big thing," a place to colonize and set up shop.
Now, we've learned that Fabio Viviani, best known for his television debut on Bravo's hit reality series Top Chef — earning the season five "Fan Favorite" title — will open Osteria in downtown Tampa this spring. Located in the bottom floor of the new luxury high-rise Nine15, Osteria is a joint project between Viviani and the Nocturnal Group, the group behind Tampa's Franklin Manor.
He joins a roster of rumored and real chef developments in our area. Iron Chefs Masaharu Morimoto and Geoffrey Zakarian, author and megastar Emeril Lagasse and Food Network notable Donatella Arpaia have all been mentioned as potential comers. Robert Irvine had an abortive foray some years back, then Michael Mina took the plunge with Locale Market in St. Petersburg and we're around the corner from barbecue champ Dr. BBQ showing us how 'cue is done, also in St. Petersburg.
Viviani already has a number of restaurant concepts: Mercato (six locations); Café Firenze in California; Siena Tavern, Bar Siena and Prime & Provisions in Chicago; and Portico in upstate New York. His first Osteria is in the Delta terminal at Los Angeles International Airport. He also has his own wine label, Fabio Viviani Wines, an at-home seafood delivery service, Lobster by Fabio, and an online cooking show, Fabio's Kitchen, on YouTube.
He's not new to Tampa Bay: In 2013 he cooked an Einstein on Food & Wine festival dinner in a private home on Bayshore Boulevard. When asked then what he would cook for that event, he said cryptically, "We're going to rock the house. When the kitchen is rocking, don't bother knocking, come on in. Fun is guaranteed. Bring your party pants."
Thus far the details of Osteria are a bit more spelled out, a rustic but refined Italian kitchen and bar featuring a large outdoor patio and a nightlife program with entertainment to include live music and DJs. So, definitely party pants. Menu highlights may include arancini with pancetta sago, smoked aioli and amaranth, a jalapeno bacon cheeseburger (ironic, because Viviani was ousted from Top Chef over a hamburger, the judges condemning it as "more like a meatball") and gnocchi with rabbit sugo. The bar program at Osteria will feature craft cocktails created by mixologist Ro Patel, the man behind the programs at the Hall of Franklin, Ciro's, and a number of other notable craft cocktail bars.
In recent months there has been much focus on the sheer number of restaurants poised to open in downtown St. Petersburg, many of them giant 300-seaters. But downtown Tampa has seen an influx nearly as notable, with Franklin Street alone welcoming five newcomers in the past couple of months. At this point, downtown Tampa boasts nearly 200 restaurants crossing cuisines, price points and ambition levels. With added condo and apartment living and new businesses and civic projects, downtown Tampa's nightlife has burgeoned, but it remains to be seen if the city can support this glut of newcomers.
Since his stint on Top Chef, Viviani has continued to have a television presence with recurring appearances on Good Morning America, The Rachael Ray Show and The Chew. So what Viviani has in his favor: national name recognition, a vivacious personality and as some viewers have insisted, a certain kind of sex appeal.
"I feel very blessed. I don't know about the sex appeal stuff," Viviani told the Tampa Bay Times in 2013. "For me really it was more like I was the Italian guy. I can't even speak English. But Top Chef changed everything for me. I was taken by storm."
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.