A Boon for the Boonies

RAFFINATO: Primadonna owners Cesare Tini, and his son, Stefano Tini, manage Primadonna Ristorante Trattoria in New Tampa.

Scene: A couple from New Tampa have just won $84-million in the Lotto and are trying to pick a restaurant to spend the first of their fortune. The lights come up as Herb enters from right and says to his fair one, Conundra: "Pick any restaurant, my sweet, no matter how expensive."

Conundra: "I'm tired from the TV interviews and the Champagne — is there someplace nearby we could go?"

Herb: "Well ...there's, uh, Checkers."

Seeing a look of utter dismay cross her face, he quickly adds, "No wait! How about Chili's ... er, why not Steak "N Shake?"

Fade to black.

From a gourmand's perspective, once you drive north on I-275 past, oh, the Sligh Avenue exit, you suddenly enter Tampa's Monstrous Culinary Wasteland. The farther you go, the worse it gets.

Burger joints abound. There are cafeterias, chain restaurants, hot dog stands, cheap ethnic joints and sports bars aplenty, no restaurants that provide serious gourmet fare with all the trimmings.

Apparently, restaurateurs have awakened to this dismaying situation, because one of South Tampa's finest eateries, Primadonna Trattoria, recently opened a second location a few blocks north of the USF campus, between Bearss Avenue and Tampa Palms Boulevard. It seems to be enjoying considerable success, as deprived denizens of the area appreciate a premier restaurant that produces excellent, complex Italian fare, stipulates careful, consistent service — and is north, way north.

Don't let the restaurant's modest exterior fool you. Tucked in a strip mall called the Oak Ramble Commercial Center, it looks like just another mediocre place nestled among small stores facing an ugly parking lot. Once you've tasted the food, though, you know Primadonna is special.

First, there was the smiling hostess, always a good sign. She was nice, even though she led us to the worst table in the house — adjacent to the bathrooms — which for some reason, seems to be my lot in life. Why is it, when there are plenty of really good tables, the hostess inevitably seats me at the worst? Anyway, as always, I asked for a better table; as always, she led us to the second worst table in the house — next to a noisy wait area. A third move produced a decent table.

Then we were set. Finally, I saw the starched, white linen topped with deep green tablecloths; the polite, uniformed waiters; the shiny wine goblets. The restaurant was busy, but not jammed, with a comfortable mix of diners: Couples, foursomes, a single or two, and even big families with small children. But somehow the atmosphere remained quiet and dignified.

Inside, the building sports taupes and browns, soft lighting, Italian opera on the sound system. Most of the diners were dressed up a bit, but not in cocktail dresses or suits. For the patrons, the code is relaxed but not sloppy. The staff was obviously not relaxed, as they were hustling to provide the exacting service that is Primadonna's hallmark.

Water appeared instantly. Just a few moments later came the wine list, with its 64 items, and a server to get you started. I chose the house Chianti ($5 per glass), a zippy foil for the crusty loaf of bread that arrived with olive oil for dipping. Presto, menus appeared. Food arrived promptly. Dishes disappeared without a trace. The waiters were friendly, but not intrusive. They stayed in the background, allowing us to focus on each other and our meal, as it should be.

For an appetizer, we ordered sauteed mushroom caps ($7.95), healthy globes of fungi topped with de-shelled escargots in a creamy garlic sauce. Excellent. I was surprised that the classic pasta and cannellini bean soup called "fagioli" lacked pizzaz; its broth needed oomph. But during my second visit, I again ordered soup — this time potato. It scored with an assertive, sloshy broth and tiny squares of chicken, mushroom and potato that remained ever so tender.

The Caesar salad ($5.95) was as perfect as it could be: fresh romaine, so crisp, carrying a thick, rich dressing and dotted with croutons. We inhaled it, right down to the last leaf, the last dab of dressing. But it was the next dish that really sent us into spasms of mmmmm: My dinner companion ordered agnolotti ($13.95), tiny round pillows of hand-made pasta, stuffed with spinach and Ricotta and enrobed in a delightful, cheesy sauce. The pasta was al dente and delicious, the sauce, perfect again. And we hadn't even reached the main dish!

Our favorite entree turned out to be the piccata al limone ($15.95), veal scaloppini lolling in a delicate, white wine and lemon-flavored cream sauce; the sauce laid in the mouth gently, carrying a rich lemon flavor, the citrus' hard edge tamed by the chef. We also savored the classic Italian beef dish ossobuco ($21.95) veal shank simmered in brown sauce, crowned with a bright, tomatoey accompaniment that added pep.

Probably the only disappointment was a dessert special ($4.50) — a clutch of pastry leaves on the bottom, slightly burned along the edges, with homemade ice cream scoops atop. But the other desserts maintained the restaurant's high standards: The cannoli ($4.50), its blistered crust so crunchy, stuffed with a mildly sweet Ricotta filling; and the Napoleon ($4.50), two layers of French pastry dough-iced with pasticcera cream, and topped with powdered sugar. The stiff pastry and its yielding, gooey filling provided, again, a lovely contrast to the palate.

We finished with a terrific cappuccino ($2), the thick coffee underlaying a white cloud of steamed milk, done exactly right.

Believe this: I'll drive up north anytime for another fix of Primadonna Trattoria. And those of you who already live or work in the north end of town can pass up the long drive south; zip over within a few minutes, and revel in this fine restaurant's excellent food and civilized demeanor.

Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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