The last time I reviewed Pia's was April 2007. I know this because it was the first place I reviewed as the food critic of the Times. For that story, Times photographer Scott Keeler took a photo of red-aproned Pia Goff in front of her ochre-colored facade, two hanging baskets of geraniums framing her, a robin's-egg blue tablecloth on a nearby outdoor table. It is still one of my favorite photos ever in the paper, evocative of tiny Tuscan villages and those desultory Italian meals Diane Lane got to eat in that movie. Goff ran out of food the day that photo printed.
Seven years later, Pia's has matured into one of most compelling restaurants in Gulfport. Several years ago it annexed an office next door, building a charming rustic dining room to match the glorious garden patio space. A couple of years ago it added a full liquor license and greater breadth to the wine list. And along the way a board of daily-changing specials has dramatically increased the menu options. Most importantly, time has served to make it an inviting neighborhood place where friends run into each other and staff remembers that you like your Gorgonzola on the side.
The core of the dinner menu is a choice of pasta — spaghetti, capellini, penne, farfalle, rotini ($9.50 to $13.95) — to which you add a sauce (bolognese, arrabiata, marinara, pesto verde and a few others), which can then be topped with chicken or shrimp for another few bucks. And then a range of thin, pounded chicken ($17) or veal ($21) preparations: parmigiana, marsala, piccata and saltimbocca. It's all textbook with bright, clean flavors and toothsome, al dente pasta.
But it's not what I eat when I'm there. I head for the antipasti misto ($14.50) if I'm there with a buddy (it's big), a generous platter of prosciutto, sopressata, mozzarella and curls of parmigiano, a couple rusks of tomato bruschetta and an array of other grilled and marinated veggies. It's perfect finger food, my pinot grigio glass getting a little slippery in the process.
From there it's a toss-up: On the one hand the peppery arugula salad, simple with crystalline Parmesan and a light coating of balsamic and oil ($10.50), is a winner, but soups are usually flavorful and homey, from sweet and autumnal roasted pumpkin to a chicken, bacon and mushroom bisque.
And then it's on to the special board. In recent weeks there has been a fresh Alaskan salmon fillet with a perfect crunchy sear on top, perched on a bed of wild rice and accompanied by tender-crisp asparagus spears ($21) and a stunning pork shank, its meat super tender, bedded down on rich soft polenta ($20). These are incredibly fair prices for the quality, quantity and complexity of these dishes.
Desserts are never an afterthought here, clearly house-made. This time of year the fetishization of pumpkin-flavored anything can make me grumpy, but Pia's has a lovely pumpkin ricotta cheesecake as well as a picture-perfect tiramisu ($7). There are often rustic fruit crostadas and dark wedges of glossy flourless chocolate cake, and sweet, jiggly panna cottas, all of which are ably accompanied by a shot of espresso and best consumed gazing at someone you care for over dozens of flickering, drippy candles. (Pia and crew must spend a lot of time peeling wax off of things.)
Restaurant years are like dog years; seven is a long time. It's nice to see such a beautiful newcomer mature into something smarter and more ambitious but just as lovely.
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Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.