MacDill After Dark

Great digs, a new dinner menu and one hot waitstaff spice up South Tampa

click to enlarge IN THE KITCHEN: Pane Rustica's kitchen staff toil in a clean, open workspace. - VALERIE TROYANO
IN THE KITCHEN: Pane Rustica's kitchen staff toil in a clean, open workspace.

You've undoubtedly been there for lunch, or maybe just grabbed a couple loaves to go. It bakes artisanal, crusty breads that are some of the best in the Bay area and serve up great flatbread pizzas, sandwiches and salads at the large South Tampa location. Also, a little over a month ago, Pane Rustica took its casual and rustic attitude and created one of the hippest and satisfying dinner joints in Tampa.

A great space during the day, Pane Rustica is even better at night. The dichotomy between the glossy concrete floor and the dark wood built-in banquette and service counter screams urban. The high ceilings that shouldn't exist in a strip mall location, buttery sunset-orange plastered walls, and classical tidbits (sconces, urns, and other stuff) give it a faux Mediterranean aura. With the lights down low and the glow from the pizza oven at the end of the room, Pane Rustica has the feel of a brilliantly decorated chic warehouse space on the urban frontier of a major metropolitan area. It's easy to forget you're in a strip mall off MacDill.

There is table service for dinner and the waitstaff wears black, but there are no set uniforms and individualism finds a way to shine through - off the shoulder with a purple bra strap, bare midriff, low cut with a bandanna in the hair, buttondown. The entire staff is young and beautiful, easily better-looking than the customers.

Even the kitchen staff looks good, decked out in identical black chef coats. Sometimes an open kitchen can be a bad idea, letting the customer see more than they should. At Pane Rustica, I wanted these people to cook my food in their organized and clean workspace. You can sit at the bar if you want to get up close and personal.

Pane Rustica's dinner offerings are vibrant, simple and as classically rustic as the bread.

A small number of big, straightforward flavors highlight every dish and the food tends toward hearty country cooking. Take the herb crusted roast chicken ($15). Perfectly cooked, the half-chicken had crisp skin and moist flesh, well seasoned with salt and a massive dose of fresh rosemary. The rosemary played a big part in the natural jus as well as the accompanying corn and walnut stuffing. Great chicken, but you'd better like rosemary.

Our olive tapenade flatbread pizza ($9) was decked out in just four ingredients: powerful and briny kalamata olive tapenade, more fresh rosemary, a spare bit of ricotta and tiny grape tomatoes. The crust was cracker crisp, the slices of pizza piled randomly atop one another on the plate. A bit stark, but the flavorful crust and powerful bite of olives made it worth eating.

Tart tomatoes and sautéed escarole added depth to a cannelini bean ragu served under slices of simply grilled pale veal sausage ($7). The ragu was the real star of this dish, the sausage just tasty window dressing for the tender beans and wilted greens studded with bits of garlic. Garlic also played a big role in the rustica salad ($7). Roasted whole cloves were hidden under the balsamic vinaigrette-dressed greens, lying in wait with olives, diced tomato and tiny balls of luscious mozzarella. Fried polenta "croutons" finished this stellar salad.

The epitome of this inclination toward simple cooking was a dish that you would not find in a fancy restaurant, but fits so well into the repertoire at Pane Rustica. Toasted, garlic-rubbed slices of country bread were scattered around a puddle of melted gorgonzola and cream. They call it Hall of Fame Garlic Bread ($7), but it is nothing more than bread and cheese. Two great tastes that taste great together.

Some dishes do reach for a bit of elegance and class, but even those are happily betrayed by pastoral touches. Fresh rigatoni were doused in a creamy basil pesto ($12) and studded with tiny diced mushrooms and crisp green peas. Overly large slices of salty prosciutto were tossed in the mix, almost as an afterthought, hidden in the sauce like bundles of treasure. But Pane Rustica's potato leek soup ($4) was neither elegant nor rustic. No oniony freshness from the leeks shone through, no earthy potatoes, just a big sea of bland cream.

Pane Rustica's tables can be a bit trying. All the hard surfaces create a loud space, so it's hard to keep a conversation going across the large ovals or down the big communal table lining the middle of the restaurant. The cozy two-tops lining the banquette wall are better. They keep everyone close.

Despite my general indifference to Tiramisu, Pane Rustica's version ($6) was quite good, probably because it was more like cake and less like an alcoholic's excuse for dessert. Keeping with the farmhouse theme, Pane Rustica also offers zabaglione and fresh berries ($6). Rich whipped cream fortified with vanilla and egg whites was covered in sweet and tart bites of raspberry, blackberry and strawberry.

There isn't anything fancy, or even especially innovative, about Pane Rustica, just well-prepared food with straightforward flavors that would fit perfectly on the table at your summer home in Tuscany. With the new dinner menu, great environment, beautiful staff and extremely reasonable prices, you may end up going for lunch and staying through dinner.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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