One of the great joys of traveling in Europe is the ability to wander into a French bistro or Italian trattoria. They seem to be everywhere, no matter which narrow street or alleyway you saunter down. You know, an intimate mom-and-pop shop with disposable brown paper protecting the tablecloths. Most everything is fashioned from family recipes, and the fresh daily specials make you sigh.
Pick a Paris arrondissement or a neighborhood in Rome; perhaps a Tuscan village or a petite ville in Provence. The proprietors proudly carry on the gastronomic traditions of their ancestors. Everyone I know lucky enough to travel to these European neighbors can’t shut up about the food.
But Tampa Bay also has lots of great food, with creative chefs making the most of the local bounty. However, given our country’s relative youth, there are precious few downtowns to stroll — we’re just too dispersed and linear. For every Dunedin, Gulfport or Ybor, there are culinary centers strung out: Florida Avenue in Seminole Heights or SoHo’s Howard Avenue, for example. They’re more destination than serendipity.
It’s in this context that Tigran “Tig” Khachaturyan, a 16-year restaurant industry veteran (15 of those years were spent in St. Pete Beach), brings Armenian roots and mostly Italian cuisine to the Sola Bistro & Wine Bar that now occupies the old Cafe Luna space on Gulf Boulevard, with designated parking as you turn the corner on 67th Street.
We begin with slices from a rustic terrine of country pate wrapped in house-cured pancetta. It's served with traditional accompaniments of crisp crostini, whole-grain mustard and small pieces of homemade tart pickles.
An ample cube of luscious pork belly is brined, braised, crisped and then sauced with a bright orange Sriracha-honey glaze. The menu's daikon salad ends up being a few greens with grated carrots. It really doesn't matter, because pork is the star. My adoration of pork belly is well-documented in these columns and Sola's version doesn't disappoint. I don't, however, worship at the shrine of Sriracha. In too many cases, it overpowers rather than enhances the surrounding ingredients. Surprisingly, I'm able to enjoy the pork keeping the ample sauce at bay; by doing so, it's balanced for my palate. If you're an asbestos mouth (like my son), you may dip enthusiastically and breathe fire till your heart's content.
Burrata caprese is obviously centered around a soft buttery ball of house-made cheese oozing stringy curd and fresh cream onto a circle of thick slices of plump, red tomato. This is all topped with hand torn leaves of fresh basil, EVOO, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. All three starters are pleasantly fresh, if not thrilling.
The entrees continue this theme. They are distinctly straightforward, not aiming for a level of finesse or fussiness. The scrumptious rack of lamb is marinated with olive oil, garlic and rosemary, grilled until rosy perfection and served with sautéed greens, roasted mushrooms and crisp fingerling potatoes with creamy centers. As Sola's Facebook page proclaims, there's "no mint sauce, no espresso rub, no mango-pineapple sauce."
Made-in-house orecchiette (small “ear”-shaped pasta traditionally from southern Italy) is perfectly al dente, tossed with olive oil, garlic, wilted rapini and chunks of house-crafted Italian sausage fragrant with fennel. It’s exactly the kind of fresh pasta dish you die for in an Italian trattoria that is rarely seen here in the red-sauced cuisine that passes for Italian in the minds of most Yanks.
Grouper Mykonos delivers a pan-seared fillet on a bed of sautéed spinach garnished with tomatoes, crumbled feta and toothsome, delicious risotto. As with the other entrees, it’s fresh, simple and lovely to eat — without being unduly ornate.
The honeycomb cake is created in-house from a traditional Russian recipe. It’s got an amazing light texture that’s surprising given its appearance. The large, flat diamond-shaped slice of cake is made up of a dozen or so ultra-thin layers that aren’t overly sweet. I’m not sure how it’s done, but it’s like no cake I can remember. And though I’m a devotee of rich desserts (which this is not), the unexpected airy consistency is a welcome contrast to many sweets that are often cloying.
(The wine list isn’t extensive, by the way, but it’s fun. Where else can you try a bottle of saperavi, a one-of-a-kind Georgian wine from “back in the U.S.S.R.?”)
The cream puffs are exactly what you might expect, with crisp profiteroles piped full of light whipped cream. The kitchen expertly divides them into smaller wedges so my table may share without crushing the delicate pastry.
It’s a shame that Sola isn’t in a centrally located area with pedestrian traffic, like on Corey Avenue. It’s too jazzy for many diners after a day at the beach, when beer and fried food usually prevail, and too casual to fill the shiny, upscale over-the-top special occasion niche. My visit is during what you’d expect to be peak hours, and the crowd is underwhelming.
The food scene on Gulf Boulevard needs what Sola is offering. While you won’t amble in off a cobblestone street, make it a point to head to the beach for a nice, relaxed European experience.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.