Downtown St. Pete, once the ugly duckling, has become a lovely swan. It's such a pleasant place to play, so much nicer than downtown Tampa. There's the Pier and BayWalk, with dozens of shops and restaurants; there's the blue magic of Tampa Bay, fronted by 65 acres of parkland. There's live music at Jannus Landing, and the civic grace imbued by many excellent museums.
When it comes to eating, St. Pete has begun to attract restaurateurs the same way it attracts the rest of us. Along the once-shabby Central Avenue, a row of fine eateries now stands ready to satisfy a host of culinary whims.
Among them is Alberto's Fusion Bistro, a 48-seat restaurant that opened just three months ago. It sits on the corner of Third Street and Central Avenue in the heart of downtown. Its proprietor is Alberto Claudio Mastromano, its executive chef James Washington Keene III. Even 10 or so years ago, such an elegant eatery would have been clearly out of place, but now it blends nicely into the bustle and the relaxed, upbeat mood of the city.
Alberto's fare is a mix of ambitious Italian and continental favorites, with a few curve balls thrown in for fun, like the "Szechwan Philly" ($6.95), from the restaurant's lunch menu — essentially a junky Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwich dressed up for polite company in hoisin sauce. The food is good, though I found some of its dishes too bland; they would have been better with the flavor turned up a notch or two.
Inside, Alberto's is unusually beautiful, done in soft ochre colors and lit by two whole walls of windows that open, screenless, when the weather is warm. One night when we were there, only one window was open because it was cool outside, but the sensation of a slight breeze at your back and hot food in front was so delightful.
So many restaurants feel like prisons, their windows inevitably sealed shut; it's a pleasure to sit in one that allows all your senses to function. From our perch inside, we watched the sky cool through the trees and morph from burnished orange to that shade of purple that inspires romance or regret.
People drifted by outside, some carrying Christmas burdens. The wine lay so crisp and dry in the glass. Waiters came and went. At one table, a foursome argued politics.
We were famished from shopping, so when the bread arrived, we were cheered to find it handmade, so fresh, its crust crisp and its interior malleable, accompanied by olive oil and garlic for dipping.
We inhaled it while we waited for the appetizers. My dinner companion ordered a lovely Caesar salad ($5), graced with an interesting mix of greens and topped with a thick, Wasabi Caesar dressing. On top, it sported Focaccia croutons and a spritely dusting of Parmesan cheese.
My appetizer was better, though: It was the "chef's special" that night, wild mushroom ragout wrapped in wonton, then fried and served with brightly colored hot sauces. The mix of lowly mushroom and titillatingly spicy sauce was unexpectedly good.
I found myself unable to ignore the antipasto bar, its glass case festive with a couple of dozen dishes that one may choose from for a plateful of hors d'oeuvres ($8.50). Alas, most of them were too bland to drive me wild. Some entailed exotic ingredients, like a jicama slaw. There were the typical Italian favorites, and a seafood mix of shrimp, octopus and scallops, as well as a melange of yellow and red peppers. They were adequate, but lacked that certain flavorful snap that distinguishes the outstanding from the average.
We dallied awhile between courses. One of the beauties of Alberto's is the sense that you won't be rushed. People sit and schmooze, they pause like they might at home, around the family dinner table. It's OK to eat slowly. It's OK to put your fork down to talk, have another glass of wine.
Even the waiter seemed to want to talk; though we weren't sure how to respond to his efforts at social chitchat. Was it simple friendliness gone one step overboard? Though we found it puzzling, we carried on, and overall, the service was good, the food arrived at a deliberate pace, the water glasses kept full, and bread and drinks were frequently replenished.
The regular menu featured an assortment of favorites, like veal scalloppine ($19.95), grilled teriyaki chicken breast with pineapple and mango salsa ($15.95) and an eight-ounce filet mignon with wild mushroom ragout, painted with gorgonzola sauce ($24.95).
But we both fell for the evening's "chef's specials" because they just sounded so divine. When they came out, hers was the better — ovals of duck breast ($22.95), cooked exactly to medium-rare, and resting upon an excellent sauce made from cranberries, mango and port wine reduction. The mild meat was delicious with the delicate tang of the sauce; together, we ate every last morsel.
Meanwhile, my choice was a healthy serving of cashew-crusted grouper ($20.95), set atop a red pepper plum wine sauce with a vanilla bean coulee, and served with a hearty pile of shredded veggies on the side. It was good, but again, just slightly bland; maybe more sauce would have helped. Still, I ate the better part of it, and enjoyed it for what it was — a nice piece of super-fresh fish, cooked just right.
We were beginning to slow down from all the food and wine, but still asked for the dessert menu because a meal seems so incomplete without it.
A half-dozen items were listed, from peach sorbet ($6.25) to a traditional Italian fig tart ($6.25). My dinner companion chose tiramisu, served with zabaglione and fresh berries ($6.95), while I opted for the inevitable chocolate fix — a truffle ($6.25). Hers arrived in a clear glass with vanilla custard atop, with soft cake and berries buried beneath, like gold waiting beneath thick snow. Its taste was mild, not too sweet, and its texture satisfyingly sloshy, as befits one of the great culinary treasures Italy has given us.
The truffle was a brown ball that resembled a tiny land mine. It was palm-size, with its exterior rolled in cocoa, a layer of cake, and a heart of chocolate and vanilla ice cream hidden inside. I had thought I would just taste it, but once I got started, it disappeared without my permission.
When we stepped back onto Central Avenue, night had fallen, and it was quiet in a relaxed way: not creepy-quiet like it used to be when St. Pete's downtown desperation was a national joke. The looming new residential towers near the water were all illuminated, and the old Vinoy hotel, renovated in new finery as the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, gazed at herself in the mirror formed by bay.
Old St. Pete sure has come a long way.
Contact Sara Kennedy at sara.kennedy @weeklyplanet.com or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.