Downtown St. Petersburg's Buona Vita Italian restaurant fills a niche, and some bellies

click to enlarge MED SPREAD: Buona Vita's Italian cuisine is best when it sticks to the simple ingredients of the Mediterranean. -
MED SPREAD: Buona Vita's Italian cuisine is best when it sticks to the simple ingredients of the Mediterranean.

Buona Vita was born out of tragedy, albeit a tiny one. When Local Coffee + Tea owner Michael Duranko decided to pull out of St. Petersburg, three of the coffeeshop employees took over the place, almost ad hoc. They were on a week-to-week pay schedule with the landlord, with no formal lease. One day, after splurging on two weeks of supplies, the three found that the locks had been changed and they were done with their brief stint as business owners.

The main reason, according to building owner Andy Wallace, was that he wanted something in the space that would better serve the local worker bees in surrounding downtown buildings. There're already a lot of coffee shops. He had been approached by Allan Galleano, one of the investors in the defunct Desanto restaurant down the street. Galleano was ready to replicate the success he's had with Italian restaurants in other locations.

Well, there are already a lot of Italian restaurants, too, with one of the best — Primi Urban Cafe — just a few blocks away. But that's not to say that Buona Vita couldn't carve itself a home, especially during the business lunch rush. The restaurant's cuisine is solid, occasionally surprising, and plentiful, perfect for folks looking for food a step above the local pizza and pasta house.

Although Buona Vita does serve pizza, which is better than average for a restaurant that's not a pie specialist. The crust is always a problem at a pizza dilettante, but here the toppings are sparse enough to accentuate the positive aspects of the chewy base. For the price, it's a filling and tasty choice for a big shared appetizer, but that would keep you from the best food on the menu.

Buona Vita's small plates are the best expression of chef Craig Smith's take on Italian cuisine, while the entrees are all too often vaguely traditional retreads of standard dining tropes. The best of it are dishes like sauteed shrimp with plenty of garlic, tart tomatoes, bright capers and bursts of heat from hot peppers. Salads are fresh and accented with clever touches of unusual veggies. Simple, but loaded with flavor.

At its worst are ravioli stuffed with bland seafood and drowned in a cream sauce so heavy and devoid of flavor, it's the taste equivalent of eating solidified milk. Thankfully, most of the menu edges toward the quality found in the appetizers.

Bolognese — more like standard meat sauce than the rich treat I hope for — is tossed with fettuccine and snips of fresh sage. That herb is welcome the first few bites, but quickly comes to infuse the whole bowl with a heady aroma that almost takes over the dish. Better are pastas with simpler sauces, like ravioli stuffed with broccoli and sausage accented by fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes and olives.

Buona Vita is definitely finding a following, which says more for the food and service than the location. Although the landlord saw the restaurant serving the surrounding office buildings for lunch, there's little else on this stretch of First Avenue that can create some synergy to draw nighttime foot traffic. That doesn't seem to be a problem for Buona Vita, though.

On two nighttime visits, both on weekdays, the restaurant pulled in enough diners to fill half the restaurant, some of them obviously regulars. That's decidedly better than Local Coffee + Tea ever managed, no matter who was in charge.

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