It's interesting to walk into Bernini in Ybor City and see the work of the restaurant's namesake — the 15th-century Italian sculptor — staring down at you. The space itself has the best of the Ybor aesthetic: historical elements left over from the old bank-building location blended with a modern, big-city suavity. There's just enough noise and the tables are just tight enough to make you feel like the place is happening, even when it's half-full. Of course, Bernini (the sculptor) might have something to say about the blob of faux rock covering the pizza oven behind the bar.
Then there's the Bernini prints hanging around the dining room. The iconic image of Bernini (the restaurant) is the "Damned Soul," a sculpture of such dynamic energy it's hard to say whether the classical figure is screaming in pain, defiance or ecstasy. That might suggest the range of feelings inside any restaurant that's survived 10 years of the Bay area's on-again/off-again love affair with Ybor.
It can also illustrate the feelings of anyone who eats Bernini's food. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes lacking, a meal here can be by turns frustrating, satisfying and annoying.
Meals almost always start well at Bernini. A heaping plate of calamari ($7) achieves that rare balance in which the breading (seasoned with tart lemon pepper here) is crisp enough to shatter into flakes under your teeth, but the squid is still meltingly tender. Sweet and bright red pepper bisque ($5) is circled by just enough fresh herbs and parmigiana to cut the rich cream. Salads are confident enough to include the occasional leaf of iceberg for satisfying crunch.
A tower of eggplant, prosciutto, ricotta, mozzarella and basil ($8) is a masterwork of both traditional construction and culinary composition. Its success comes largely from eggplant that keeps a sturdy, crisp crust even amid the orgy of cheese and sauce, providing a physical and textural foundation for the rest of the fine ingredients.
Pizzas have the thin, pseudo-Neapolitan crust typical to Italian restaurant pies, but Bernini tends to be heavy with the cheese and light on the herbs. The Margherita ($10) feels more like American chain pie than an Italian classic, and some of the others are even more burdened by the toppings.
When entrées arrive, they look as accomplished as the starters. Bernini's signature dish is a grouper filet ($24) coated in crushed pistachio nuts, perched against a pile of garlic mashed potatoes above a puddle of brown butter. Pretty as a picture. Once it hits my mouth, all I get is texture. Moist grouper, creamy potatoes, tender-crisp broccolini, all entirely devoid of salt, the overly sweet butter sauce providing the only contrast to a mishmash of dull or nonexistent flavor.
Chicken tortellini ($19) gets the same treatment, a splash of reduced chicken stock doing little for the unseasoned mass of cheese-filled pasta and sautéed breast meat, while corn-and-crab risotto comes out gelatinized into a solid, too-dry ball.
Lasagna ($9.95, lunch) is more impressive, the massive cube of cheese, ground veal, sauce and pasta overflowing — by design — from a dish just a tad too small for this monstrosity. There's some flavor here, but it's all due to the cheese. The pasta fades into nonexistence, and the veal is nigh invisible, the already mild meat not given the salt and herb necessary to shine.
This appears to be a consistency problem more than a fundamental flaw in Bernini's food. Chicken fontina ($9.50, lunch) is a familiar variant on grilled chicken coated in cheese; at most places it's forgettable or poorly executed. Here, it's a favorite, the chicken assertive enough to stand up to the blanket of ham (seemingly not the prosciutto listed on the menu) and buttery fontina, with tart artichokes for some balance.
Once you start experiencing this disconnect in the food, other personality quirks make themselves known. During a weekday lunch or Wednesday night drinks, the music is the usual jazz and rat-pack blend you'd expect. As Ybor starts to wake up on Saturday night, though, Bernini switches to alterna-techno pop. Service is always friendly and efficient but often overly familiar.
Even with all that, I like Bernini. In more than a decade, it feels like it's managed to find its footing in Ybor, even if that footing can be a bit manic and conflicted. It's not their fault; it's an Ybor thing. You wouldn't understand.
More importantly, when Bernini's kitchen is on, the food can be exceptionally tasty. I'm more than willing to put up with the pain and annoyance of the "damned soul" for the occasional screams of joy.