Osteria Bar + Kitchen
3 out of 5 stars
903 N. Franklin St., Tampa. Appetizers: $16-$27; entrees: $16-$34; desserts: $8-$10; beer, cocktails & wine: $6-$23. 813-563-5000, osteriatampa.com.
It’s always instructive to eat at restaurants with similar goals during back-to-back weeks. A carefully designed interior that’s in sync with the origin of the cuisine, an imaginative menu built on traditional techniques, and friendly servers who have time to be attentive.
Both dining spots I speak of are aspirational, and going in, my expectations are the meals may be something special. This week’s experience ends up as three stars instead of higher because miscues pull down what otherwise could excel. Next week, well... you’ll have to wait and see.
Downtown Tampa’s Osteria Bar + Kitchen, which will soon launch lunch and brunch, is a lovely space, featuring a south wall with fragments of giant paintings immediately identifiable as Italian in origin. But there’s a sleekness and sophistication to the whole room that elevates the eatery above a red-sauce mom and pop. It has a creative cocktail list riding the trendy wave, too. My tasters enjoy a lovely elderflower mule and a basil lemonade while waiting for our apps to arrive. Lots of buzz online touts the Kobe meatball, so that choice is a no-brainer; we also pick the burrata crostini to see how Osteria elevates this favorite.
Not every course can be prepared à la minute, or fresh to order. Of course, this is preferable if possible, but many dishes are too complicated or require a longer cooking times. That’s true of the giant meatball served in a cast-iron pan with chunky tomato sauce and topped with creamy house-made ricotta and some fresh basil. We’re surprised when the 12-ounce meatball bigger than a baseball emerges from the kitchen almost immediately after we place our order. Sadly, what is a moist, light and flavorful concoction showcasing the richness of Kobe beef in tomato sugo is lukewarm, which robs the starter of its intended wow factor. We wait in anticipation for the burrata, hoping it contains no unforced errors.
Our glasses of appropriate Italian wine, Rosso di Montalcino, arrive, and we watch what looks like a scrum of servers back near the handsome pizza oven. I’m not sure if it’s training day, but the group seems unfocused. Still no burrata crostini. We chat, sip our wine and are pleased when our water glasses are topped off. Could it be that somehow the burrata is forgotten? We watch the servers mill about. Finally, an entree arrives, then another. Oops — looks like our burrata has been lost in the shuffle.
Chicken Marsala, which I expect may be ho-hum, is a wonder. If only everything arrived with this attention to detail. The chicken is juicy, but the stars are surprising crispy chick peas and flawless roasted cauliflower florets, plus bursts of texture and flavor from chicken skin chicharrones and blistered cherry tomatoes.
The whole roasted branzino is dramatic because it’s, indeed, an entire fish. Easily separated from the bone, the delicate white fish is fresh with a crisp coating, yet too lightly seasoned. Although a spritz of fresh lemon enlivens the dish on the palate, it’s almost too simple. Broken fingerling potatoes and sautéed zucchini are well-cooked but, much like our appetizer, they're lukewarm rather than hot.
Since there’s no place to hide, margherita is always my selection when evaluating pizza. Osteria’s version is picture-perfect, with a small, puffy edge and notable char. It highlights plenty of fresh mozzarella and torn basil leaves. However, the tomato sauce is a bit bland, as is the crust that’s redeemed by the uniform, leopard-spotting char.
Tortelli di erbette benefits from being freshly made. The al dente pasta is stuffed with spinach and house ricotta bathed in a light sauce of shaved garlic and EVOO, which complements instead of overwhelms. Baby heirloom tomatoes add the right touch of acidity. This one hits all of the notes as far as what makes Italian cuisine so beloved, namely high-quality ingredients presented with clean, bright flavors.
Showcasing appropriate cornmeal, porridge-like goodness, our ample side of creamy, buttery polenta is well-seasoned with mascarpone and Parmesan. There’s so much that we can’t finish it all.
Our first dolci choice is a pretty, round individual serving of key lime ricotta cheesecake that’s mostly notable for a seductively creamy texture. But the dessert lacks the tartness normally welcome in a traditional key lime pie. Nevertheless, the flavors are well-balanced, and it’s not too sweet. I just wish it had more punch.
White chocolate tiramisu, which comes in what is essentially a large wide-mouth glass, is lush and smooth. It’s a more elegant vehicle than the ubiquitous Mason jar presentations that have become so popular of late. Again, the textural component is its main attraction. The flavors are subtle; espresso- and Marsala-soaked ladyfingers are present, yet because they’re buried in the glass, it’s only by peeking between bites that I can confirm their presence. There’s a sweet, crunchy topping to add variety, but this is mostly one-dimensional. The decision to use white chocolate also reinforces the creaminess instead of providing a contrasting flavor. Still, the dessert is tasty, and we manage to empty the glass and lick our spoons.
At these price points, if celebrity chef (and Top Chef favorite) Fabio Viviani, who’s partnered with the local Nocturnal Hospitality Group to open Osteria, wants to soar as a restauranteur like Gordon Ramsey or Alain Ducasse, some work needs to be done. You can’t settle for good when excellence is clearly the goal.