Bellisimo Benedetto!

Chef Bennet Pumo is making a name for himself in Land O'Lakes

click to enlarge MAKING THE LEAP: Once a special, the standout - grouper bianco, center, was promoted to the - regular menu. (Don't miss the desserts, either.) - LISA MAURIELLO
LISA MAURIELLO
MAKING THE LEAP: Once a special, the standout grouper bianco, center, was promoted to the regular menu. (Don't miss the desserts, either.)

A little over a week ago, I waited in line for over an hour for a table at the hottest restaurant ... in Land O'Lakes. There's a sentence I never thought I'd be writing, and about a situation I never banked on experiencing. After all, all the hot new restaurants are in downtown St. Petersburg, in Channelside or south on Howard Avenue, right? Wrong. In three short years, Benedetto's has not only earned a bundle of accolades and a spot on Florida Trends' Top 400 Restaurants list, but, more importantly, has proven that locals don't need to head down I-75 in search of a fine meal. Chef and owner Bennet Pumo is not yet 30, and never attended culinary school. His interest in Italian cuisine and seafood comes from a well-spent youth hanging around restaurateurs and chefs. Mentors from Mike Gordon to Vosko Ferrara helped Chef Pumo cultivate his natural talent. A single taste of one of his sensational sauces explains his decision to trade academic loans for business ones.

Which brings one to wonder if such early success can go to a young man's head. His obvious talent and drive, as well as his comfy position as Land O'Lakes' most prominent chef, make it easy to take risks that a man in more precarious real estate might not dare to. Chef Pumo is not one to play it safe, as his bold, exuberant dishes prove. In almost every dish we sampled, Pumo went for the gusto, and in most cases, the results blew our socks off.

Pumo's sauce expertise could be seen in two soups we sampled as appetizers. Benedetto's pasta fagioli ($3.25) was a thick, hearty red broth, heavy on the beans and redolent of fresh herbs and spices. Though nothing unusual, it was an excellent example of the traditional Italian bean soup. Benedetto's version of New England clam chowder ($4.25) featured shrimp, fish and scallops in a creamy broth strongly flavored with sour cream. My date, who is a New England clam chowder purist, balked at the broth. "It's good," he explained, "but it didn't meet my expectations for chowda'. I wish they'd just called it Benedetto's chowder or something."

The house salad brought another revelation in sauce. The house dressing, a frothy, thickly emulsified red wine vinaigrette, spooned like salsa and tasted like garlic-enhanced heaven. When we expressed our approval to our chatty waitress, she admitted that her tables often request to buy the dressing by the bottle. "But," she added with a wistful sigh, "it doesn't last too long out of the blender."

Our final appetizer, the "Benedetto's dip" ($12.95), was a kitchen sink-style dish, featuring lobster, crabmeat, shrimp, scallops, fish and cream sauce topped with cheese and baked in a little casserole. Jokes about "leftover night" aside, the dip was delightful from the first scoop to the final scrap. My only critique is of the sourdough crostini served alongside the dish: they did not do the Benedetto's dip justice, forcing us to devour the concoction on top of selections from the bread basket instead.

By the time our entrées arrived, expectations were running high, as we'd already seen what a master Pumo could be with his sauces. Each was served with a side of pasta. I got mine with a mediocre marinara, but that disappointment was instantly forgotten with my date's side of pasta with a vodka blush sauce. At once delicate and mouthwatering, it was difficult for us to turn our attentions from the side dishes to the main events.

My date ordered a massive veal osso bucco ($34.95), baked for hours in a tomato sauce with olives and sweet bell peppers. In true Italian fashion, the shank was served with a tiny cocktail fork speared into the bone; all the easier for me to participate in the vile (according to my date) and authentic (according to my Italian blood) activity of marrow-sucking. As promised, of course, the meat melted off the bone, and was as tender and moist as one could hope. Unfortunately, this was one instance in which Pumo's sauce expertise took away from the experience. The sauce of an osso bucco should taste as much of meat as the meat tastes of sauce. This version had a red, acidic sauce that, if anything, tasted a little too fresh to do the dish justice.

I ordered one of the house specialties, grouper bianco ($24.95). Like the Benedetto's dip, the bianco had been a nightly special that made it into regular rotation on the menu. And, also like the dip, it features a good percentage of the available fruit de la mare. The fresh grouper filet is breaded and topped with lump crabmeat, scallops, jumbo shrimp and a scallion-studded cream sauce, which — if you are reading this in South St. Pete, for instance — is worth the trip. I personally drove six hours from out of town for this dinner, and the grouper bianco made every mile worthwhile.

For dessert, we found another stunner in homemade tiramisu ($7.95). Though not as big a fan of the quintessential Italian dessert as my date, even I enjoyed the ultra-rich mix of lady fingers, chocolate, mascarpone and liqueur. I also sampled one of the restaurant's many signature martinis. The sparkling fruit martini ($6) was similar to a tart champagne sangria, and included spumanti, fruit and the popular Italian digestif Limoncella.

The tiny restaurant is boisterous but friendly on most nights, and mixes terracotta décor with Rat Pack art (and enough Sinatra memorabilia to make a tidy profit on eBay). Articles about Ben Pumo and his wife, Elizabeth, line the entrance foyer. It's difficult not to be impressed by what the Pumos have accomplished. In the handful of years since moving to the area, Bennet and his wife have had a daughter, beaten a bout with cancer, and opened one of the best new restaurants in a tri-county area.

Where a more established restaurant scene might have scoffed at the upstart entrepreneur, the blank culinary slate of Land O'Lakes was primed and ready for Chef Pumo's creations. With nightly packed crowds, the hundred-seat eatery has proven it has the chops (and the steaks, and the grouper filets, and, above all, the sauces) to stand proud.

Freelance writer Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected] weeklyplanet.com. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.

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