4 out of 5 stars
2454 N. McMullen Booth Road #205, Clearwater. Appetizers: $8-$18; entrees: $14-$22; desserts: $7.50-$8.50; wines by the glass: $7-$10. 727-303-3403; acquaalta.us.
St. Mark’s Square in Venice is a magical place. The facade of the Doge's Palace is reflected in the Grand Canal, the watery Venetian version of I-4. Transplanted Venetians — Leonardo and Rimma Castaldi and pescatarian chef Paolo Polo (yes, as in Marco) — have brought that same magic to the corner of McMullen Booth and Enterprise in Clearwater. This is not Nonna's red-sauce cuisine.
Soon after we take our seats at Acqua Alta, Polo proudly places a small bowl of rustic mushroom soup topped with a few crunchy croutons in front of each diner. This welcoming amuse bouche announces this is the real deal — and that an exciting evening awaits. The flavors are layered and satisfying, with a deep, complex, bold mushroom punch. It's a “wow” that has us exchanging blissful glances.
The table's bread container is a paper bag with the top rolled back. It's filled with small pieces of Italian bread (made in-house) with an open crumb and distinct notes of semolina. We happily munch as we fall under Leonardo's spell.
“Consider the menu only as a suggestion. Paulo is here to make you happy.”
Don't even think about skipping the tapas-like cicchetti alla Veneziana. It's a smart way to begin with a sampler of traditional small bites that define the cuisine of Venice. And it's perfectly matched with a bottle of prosecco as you explore.
Our other colorful platters include bruschetta with tomato-mozzarella-garlic and cured Parma ham with olive tapenade; peperonata of stewed eggplant, bell peppers and onions; and polenta e baccalà mantecato (whipped dry salted cod on rounds of grilled polenta). Most unusual is polenta e gamberi in saor, which layers shrimp with sautéed onions mixed with tangy vinegar, sweet raisins and pine nuts on another polenta round for an authentic treat.
A main course of tagliere, literally "chopping board," is filled with ultra-thin slices of pork: prosciutto di Parma, Italian-style cotto ham, mortadella from Bologna and the wonderful porchetta di treviso, slow-roasted pork leg stuffed with herbs. The meat is topped with ribbons of both Asiago and grana Padano cheese. A tiny bowl of Polo's delightful, fine-textured homemade jam of blueberries, strawberries, apple and mango is a surprising, delicious accompaniment.
The chef's simple, clean flavors shine in pasta Sacca Fisola. You may choose from penne or linguine, which is perfectly al dente. Polo finishes the pasta dishes in the sauté pan, using the starchy pasta water to amalgamate the fresh ingredients. In this case, the flavors soar. Peppery arugula balances both fresh-diced and sun-dried tomatoes. Some shaved grana Padano, a touch of garlic and a drizzle of EVOO are in perfect balance. It’s a great example of how the best Italian cuisine is a triumph of a few, fresh ingredients.
The same is true of Nostromo, a classic carbonara that substitutes fried tuna for bacon. It's not as complex as our other pasta, though still tasty. A plate that needs tweaking is the International Risotto Agli Scalzi. Polo adds bok choy and shrimp to rice with a prosecco reduction and grated Asiago, plus a little EVOO, garlic and parsley. Unfortunately, the finished product seems under-seasoned, and the shellfish is slightly over-cooked. It's the only item of the evening that doesn't make you stand at attention.
True to their word of guaranteeing little treats, a small plate appears with triangles of frìtole, fried dough topped with granulated sugar and Nutella. The owners clearly love sharing a bit of Venice with unsuspecting guests. They bounce around the dining room with extra bites tables didn’t order, assuring that there are smiles all around. It's like being seated in a generous friend's home. One of my companions is starry-eyed at the hospitality.
Polo exits the kitchen with a full blender he expertly pours into a group of waiting flutes to pass around the room. It's an off-the-menu sorbetto — a decadent adult slushy of lemon gelato whipped with prosecco that’s the perfect transition to i nostri dolci, our sweets.
We order the tiramisu alle fragole (strawberry). The individual serving is a glass of not-too-sweet mascarpone with a surprising gluten-free chocolate cake, topped with fresh, quartered berries. The cake is dipped in espresso, lightly, so it acts as a grace note. The dessert’s also not overly assertive, and you'd never know it's gluten-free, which usually means tasteless. This version surprisingly works.
While waiting for coffee, our host Leonardo announces that the secret weapon is espresso made-to-order in an old-fashioned Art Deco stovetop pot. I recall fondly the ubiquitous nature of these shiny silver tools from my trips to Italy. I even owned one once, but eventually gave in to the impulse to embrace new technology. While he's waiting for the brew, he surprises the table with a taste of paradise dates stuffed with mascarpone and finished with walnuts. They go oh-so-well with our last sips of red wine; the nut's slight bitterness and astringency are in sync with the wine's tannins.
As promised, the coffee is terrific.
If you've never experienced the serendipity of wandering into a real Italian trattoria to be spoiled by the enthusiasm and generosity of la dolce vita, the sweet life, Acqua Alta is that adventure. It's the most authentic European experience I've had on our shores. You can almost imagine Piazza San Marco's pigeons, or the sounds of a vaporetto whizzing across the canal.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.