Fabio Viviani has had a crash course in U.S. geography. The Top Chef Season 5 fan favorite opened Osteria in Tampa at the beginning of October. Next, he opens a restaurant in Oklahoma City. Then back to Tampa to open a restaurant called Mole, where Fly Bar was until recently. After that, another restaurant, he says in Charleston, S.C., but he looks just the slightest bit uncertain.
He has seven locations of Mercato; Café Firenze in California; Siena Tavern, Bar Siena and Prime & Provisions in Chicago; Portico in upstate New York; and the Press Room in Detroit. His first Osteria is in the Delta terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, and he's planning a series of food courts around the country to debut at the end of this year. Even if you're not a foodie, you've seen this guy around: He has been on Good Morning America, The Rachael Ray Show, The Chew and Food Network shows like Cutthroat Kitchen: All-Star Tournament. (He won.)
So why Tampa? He checked it out while visiting for events like the Einstein on Food & Wine festival some years back, but it's his personal connection to Lanfranco Pescante, one of the principals in the Nocturnal Group, the group behind Tampa's Franklin Manor. From different parts of Italy, they are nonetheless simpatico and decided to go into business together.
That brings us to Osteria. Let's get etymological here: A ristorante is a full-service restaurant; trattorias are more casual, rustic neighborhood restaurants; and osterias are more casual still, essentially wine bars with simple, daily-changing food (often no printed menu). But if you go to Osteria expecting a super-casual affair, you will be disoriented. This is among the most glamorous new restaurants to open this year in Tampa.
There are stunning re-creations of Italian restaurant murals, a huge central bar dividing the restaurant into two rooms and another inviting bar outside with generous umbrellas. Upstairs is a private dining space that overlooks the bar, and a gorgeous black marble mosaic tile wall, which echoes the red mosaic tile of the pizza oven. You are going to get a little dolled up for this one, so bust out your fancies. The price point merits it, but it's really the big city vibe of the place. (They have valet service that takes your cell number; you text them back when you want your car, so 2018.)
Viviani was on site for the opening, leaving some of his team to finish training the local staff. Even in this cutthroat hiring market, they managed to hire a number of really excellent local folks — Byblos in Tampa lost its general manager Manny Quinones, and a number of other local restaurants saw staff peel off to be among the starting team here. They've trained people well, and clearly everyone has eaten their way through the menu, able to give descriptions and personal faves.
It's got a full bar with a short list of Italian-inflected specialty cocktails (a Fernet mule, a smoky mezcal drink zhuzhed up with bitter amari); a brief beer list split between Italy, Tampa and elsewhere; and a wine list that leans very heavily to Italy, a bold move in a market that is still fairly unfamiliar with Italian varietals. (You'll hear a lot of, "Um, what's the most like a cabernet sauvignon?")
This is a big restaurant, lots of bustle, lots of plates zooming around and people swivel-necking to see who is walking in the door. Despite all that, I thought the pacing on a couple of visits was spot on. It's the kind of place I'd recommend sharing an appetizer, then a pizza, then a pasta, then a main course.
My favorite dish is something I would love to re-create, a study in different textures: braised octopus, the fatter parts plush while the tips were just crunchy, paired with a little splash of romesco sauce and a burnt lemon butter sauce, but with shaved fennel and sauteed celery providing a little snap and curls of cerignola olive giving it pops of saltiness ($22 is expensive for an appetizer, but split it with someone). Second favorite was a tuna carpaccio, paper-thin rounds of tuna bejeweled with discs of watermelon radish, capers, frisee poufs, pickled onion and dots of lemony vinaigrette ($17).
On two different visits I enjoyed the Little Gem wedge ($16), a great updating of the iceberg classic, this one with roasted cherry tomatoes and high notes of more pickled onion commingling with the bacon and Gorgonzola clods. But I also would highly recommend the Mediterranean salad ($15), which eats like a meal topped with breaded and fried artichoke hearts, curls of ricotta salata and planks of roasted zucchini riding high upon a wave of arugula in a piquant balsamic vinaigrette.
Pizzas are a big personal size or small for two people, nearly Neapolitan style but not quite so tender at the center, so it's possible to pick up a slice without mishap. We opted for a straight-up margherita ($16), which we asked for amped up with a handful of salty, slithery anchovies. A great pie, its sauce a sweet-tart fruity balance.
There are two pastas that have sucked all the air out of the room, the rigatoni in a jar ($25) — a super comfort food with egg yolk and bacon, dramatically un-jarred tableside — and the squid ink garganelli ($27), the black lengths dotted with rock shrimp and power-thrusted into luxury with a rich uni butter. I'm going to defy the consensus and say that one night's seafood linguine ($29), simple, fresh, crowded with mussels, shrimp, clams, calamari and pieces of lobster, was deeply enjoyable and nurturing, as was another night's pappardelle with softly braised short rib ($25), umami and salty with grana padano.
Viviani himself strongly recommended the roasted chicken, but I failed to heed (I'll get it next time), opting instead to try entrees like the hearty seafood cioppino stew with its lobstery-buttery broth ($30) and the chianti-braised short rib ($34) over creamy polenta with a parsley-lemon zest gremolata sprinkled over the top.
For dessert, I listened to Viviani and got what I believe was his mother's recipe for white chocolate tiramisu ($10), very creamy but lacking any real punchy espresso or Marsala flavor, as well as the bomboloni ($10), fried doughnut spheres served in a brown paper bag and accompanied by a cold vanilla custard, cold chocolate sauce and lime curd. (Heat up those first two sauces and make sure the doughnuts are piping, and I'm down with it.) The best, however, he didn't mention: a tiny key lime ricotta cheesecake ($10), very airy and not too tart, with roasted rosemary pine nuts providing an herbal-savory note of sophistication and two perfect red dots of raspberry coulis for a bit of drama.
A bit of drama is what Osteria is bringing to downtown — a celebrity chef, a high-style space with sophisticated spins on regional Italian. Despite all of downtown Tampa's recent growth, it seems like a niche that has a little space. A bear market might make menu prices a little steep for some diners, but I for one will be back soon to try the chicken. Fabio told me to.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.