TAMPA — The evening began with chef Fabio Viviani telling the group to fork the fluffy coccoli in front of us, break it open then stuff it with the cold smoked prosciutto de Parma and stracchino cheese delicately laid out on wooden boards.
"Stracchino is what Brie cheese wants to be when it dies and goes to heaven," Viviani said in a still-thick-enough-to-be-charming Italian accent.
Things went accordingly from there at a preview dinner for Osteria, a new restaurant set to open in September on the bottom floor of downtown Tampa high-rise Nine15. Viviani has joined with David Anderson and Lanfranco Pescante, friends of his and the team behind Tampa nightclub/bar/eatery Franklin Manor, to open the spot that will feature rustic Italian cuisine and also late-night pizzas for the party crowd across the street at the Manor.
That's where a couple dozen journalists and influencers gathered Monday night, convening around a long table under romantic red lighting for a chance to taste the food and meet the chef behind Osteria, which isn't ready for hosting dinners just yet.
"We're throwing a pool party in a bathtub tonight," Viviani told us, one of many nods to the small, food truck-like kitchen they were working with Monday.
Not that anyone would have known, as we made our way through six elegantly composed courses, some family-style, some plated, all likely to be on Osteria's menu in some form. Viviani charmed us through every dish, pacing up and down the long table describing courses: "There's a little bit of honey on it, so some finger licking is allowed."
Before dinner, as we sipped cocktails including the refreshing and watermelony Elderflower Mule, he made his way through the crowd shaking everyone's hands, sometimes more than once. Full-on gracious host mode.
"All I know how to do is make people happy with food and drinks," he said. "Honestly, I suck at most things besides this."
Viviani, who moved to the United States from Florence, Italy, in 2005, made a national name for himself as a competitor on Bravo's cooking show Top Chef. He was deemed Season 5's fan favorite, and it's easy to see why. His rakish charm is at least half the appeal of Osteria.
The food we tasted was equally alluring, Italian flavors and dishes that felt more authentically Italian than your traditional pasta plates. That stracchino cheese is imported from Italy; Viviani confirmed it'd be tough to find in the States. Of another dish, the dessert bomboloni, he said: "If you've never been to Italy, you've never had bomboloni."
After the coccoli, a light and puffy, almost pastry-like ball of fried bread paired with that prosciutto and creamy cheese, there was braised octopus. Cooked just right, with the little suction cups still attached, it was slightly charred yet tender, surrounded by a delicate mixture of Calabrian chilies, thinly shaved celery and celery leaves, and briny kalamata olives, the whole thing brought together with a bright red romesco sauce.
A lobster and avocado salad with a zingy honey grapefruit vinaigrette and some shaved fennel helped break up the meal and prepare our stomachs for what Viviani called "Carbonara in a Jar": giant mason jars filled with pasta, cured pork belly, Brussels sprouts, egg yolk and a decadent Parmesan sauce. Viviani shook the jars himself and sent them out to different parts of the long table, insisting we eat them as soon as we got them. (He said at Osteria they'll serve the dish in smaller, individual jars.)
Chicken Marsala was not the boring chicken dish it could have been, chicken breast with the wing still attached buoyed by roasted cauliflower and slightly crunchy chickpeas. Dessert was Fabio's Grandma Bomboloni, spheres of fried dough that tasted very doughnut-y but lighter and not as sweet.
Viviani, who has restaurants in California, New York and Chicago and is working on others in places like Oklahoma, said Tampa appealed to him as an area that's still establishing itself.
"I wanted to come somewhere that's still growing, so by the time everyone else discovers it, I'm already here," he said. "The Tampa market is booming. … For us to be a pioneer in what will be a culinary destination is a privilege."