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Review: Two beach breakfast spots, one in Largo awaken appetites

A strawberry waffle at Proino joins a breakfast menu both sweet and savory.
Published Jul. 8, 2013

Breakfast places. They may be open for lunch, too, but that's not the point. These are the places where the Bunn coffee pot is constantly making the rounds, cups topped off after nearly every sip. It's not necessarily good coffee, but still, there's lots of it. These are the places where every tabletop is crowded with towers of half-and-half creamers and jelly tublets leaning unsteadily against slender Tabasco bottles and potbellied, sticky-mouthed syrup dispensers. • There's no glory in these kinds of places, but when they are good, oh man. The blueberry pancakes, the corned beef hash, the biscuits and sausage gravy — the lazy days of summer seem like a good time to praise two new Pinellas morning-food heavy hitters and one legendary spot.

Nina's Café

There is no Nina. Maybe there was a Nina before, but since Laura and Jason Mattingly bought Nina's in August 2012, she has been 86ed. Jason gave up a career in manufacturing and Laura gave up a job at an investment firm to be their own bosses. The world they preside over is a small one in Mulligan's Plaza, only about 20 seats inside and 25 or outside with views of water and the causeway over to Treasure Island. On a Sunday morning when gloomy skies unleash fat droplets, the patio customers are flushed inside holding coffee cups and their plates of rain-bloated pancakes. And the Mattinglys move into high gear to find tables for the displaced and to set new giant pancakes on the griddle.

There are three things on Nina's small menu that go up against the area's other breakfast superstars: the blueberry pancakes ($1.50 for one, $3.99 for three), the housemade corned beef hash ($3.49), and a devilishly sumptuous crab cake Benedict ($9.99). The pancakes defy physics, being both ethereally light and puffy at the same time they sit densely in your gut like a sponge dipped in Quikrete. One of these blueberry-studded babies was enough to induce stupor.

The Mattinglys, from Louisville, Ky., are planning on adding a regional specialty, the hot brown (an open-faced oddity with tomato and a broiled-golden Mornay sauce on top). Fine, I say, that would be nice, but the crisp bacon and crusty-edged home fries make the breakfast-all-day approach seem wise.

Proino Breakfast Club

Proino means breakfast in Greek, which is a little hint about what George Soulellis is trying to do with his new spot, opened in March. In a building in Largo that was formerly a Crispers, it's vast, sporting a huge number of seats indoors and on a covered patio. With red walls and cheery multicolored pendant lamps, it has a friendly vibe (and the walls support some grass-green soundproofing material that keeps noise levels sensible). Altogether, it reads like a chain, which it should because Soulellis owns nine such breakfast places in Montreal called l'Eggsoeufs.

Still, there's something homespun and comfy about Proino. Maybe it's the handwritten signs all over the place, or maybe it's because the servers call you "sweetie" and "honey" on their 53 trips by your table to refill coffee.

Pinpointing what Proino does best is hard because it does so many things well. The crepes are amazing: I ordered a dish that was two eggs over easy, with several fat sausage links, a generous serving of home fries and a delicate sweet crepe packed with vanilla pastry cream and studded with fresh raspberries. Oh, and the plate contained a wedge of orange and triangles of fresh pineapple and cantaloupe, all for $8.95. It was a demented amount of breakfast, but darned if I didn't eat the whole thing, all the flavors and textures egging me on, so to speak.

The kitchen seems to have a real knack with fruit-oriented things, from simple yogurts topped with fresh fruit ($7.95) to smoothies like a charmer that is half kiwi, half strawberry packed festively in layers into a tall glass ($3.95). Look around the dining room and you'll see people tucking into waffles, French toasts and crepes topped with berries and custard and whipped cream.

Sea Horse

Longtime beachgoers won't need any introduction to this place, its knotty pine booths rubbed smooth from decades of T-shirts leaning comfortably back while awaiting pecan pancakes. Begun in 1938, it was one of the area's original drive-in restaurants, a ramshackle fixture on Pass-a-Grille with newspaper clippings and fishing photos shellacked into tabletops.

A short stack of pecan studded flapjacks ($4.65) is fairly perfect, the sweet nuts adding both texture and flavor that marries so well with maple syrup.

Still, the biscuits and sausage gravy ($3.59) is justly legendary, the kind of fluffy-gooey indulgence that says "today I'm on vacation, or at least pretending to be." The Sea Horse isn't exactly the place for asceticism; in fact it says right there on the menu that they don't do egg-white omelets. As in, what's the point of reveling in a lazy summer breakfast if you can't take a yolk?

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

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