Baby beets with lavender goat cheese, smoked shishitos, Meyer lemon gel and crispy Pecorino.
The sidewalk tables and umbrellas outside Il Ritorno, a new Italian restaurant on the 400 block of St. Pete’s Central Avenue, give no hint of anything out of the ordinary.
Inside, too, is nice, but nothing earth-shattering. A handsome banquette with pillows houses a couple of two-tops for romantic dates. There’s an exposed brick wall, a group of sleek black tables glistening with glassware, and a large, cushy u-shaped grouping at the back if you need to bring your whole posse. The L-shaped bar is a thick slab of shiny faux stone sporting a variegated rock-like edge, and the huge HVAC pipes at the ceiling complete the inviting industrial-chic vibe.
The first hint that this is someplace special comes when an
slate plate arrives with small crisp squares of rosemary focaccia and perfect mini ciabatta dotted with salt. As I break bread and dip it into a small ramekin filled with fresh basil, Parmesan and fruity olive oil, I am transported back to Tuscany. The combo announces that the team of chefs has serious chops. OK, I say to myself, “Let’s see what else they can deliver.” After all, this is just bread. Perfect bread, yes, but still…
An exposed brick wall and huge HVAC pipes complete the restaurant's inviting industrial-chic vibe.
It’s when I start tasting our first course choices that I confirm something magical is happening. For the second time in as many weeks, I’m in a restaurant with a relaxed vibe that’s turning out flavors to make my head spin. Note that these are delicate portions; if your idea of an Italian meal is piles of spaghetti with red sauce, this place is not for you. But if you seek bold but nuanced flavors, this is your kind of Italian.
Take the short rib mezzaluna, for instance. Small triangles of translucent pasta enrobe a thin meaty filling that is deceiving. The flavors practically shout; your mouth is full of short rib, yet the braised meat is barely present. The combination of pecorino, truffle fonduta, and concentrated tomato is like a magic trick. How is it possible for this simple filled pasta to practically blow your head off with flavor?
If the mezzaluna doesn’t enchant you, the octopus puttanesca most certainly will. The charred tentacles are similarly mute; the trick to the puttanesca (named for “ladies of the night”) is kept under wraps. How is the octopus so tender? As I lap it up with the sauce of Kalamata olives, confit tomatoes and garlic touch by salted capers, I am practically swooning.
The steamed mussels can’t possibly match what has come before, can they?
Yes, they can.
Surrounded by fat homemade breadsticks for dipping, the tiny mollusks are served in an ambrosial broth flavored with Calabrese chilies and floating caramelized onions and a slick of lobster oil; this is my kind of oil spill. In this case, the secret ingredient is another Calabrian specialty, a spicy pork sausage meat (made in-house) called nduja, or “en-doo-ya.”
En-doo-ya? I do.
Three dishes; three grand slams. What, pray tell, will the entrees bring?
More home runs, that’s what. Queen snapper is pan seared with nice color and surrounded by a tangle of broccoli rabe and a sunset-colored fennel-tomato emulsion. The pine nut gremolata brings bright accents of citrus and herb that make the whole dish sing. It’s positively operatic, with small skinless confit green tomato orbs that explode in your mouth to add just the right touch of acidity.
I’m about ready to sing myself when a dining companion plops a forkful of Australian lamb shank and creamy polenta in my mouth. It’s so tender that it’s fallen off the bone, and the combo is the kind of comfort food that keeps Italian bachelors at home living with Nona. Some additional shredded meat hooks up with a soft, absolutely luscious eggplant caponata that adds another delicious layer.
Attention to the supply chain and nurturing the best sources really pay off in the Maple Leaf Farms duck breast. A row of pleasingly pink slices, each surrounded by thin, crisp layers of of duck fat, rests on a pale green bed of garlic-chive spaetzle. Those most wonderful tiny German dumplings are partnered with caramelized Brussels sprouts and a touch of sweet apple mostarda jus, a reduction that adds another dimension and balances all the dishes’ flavors — bitter, sweet, fat and savory.
The desserts are equally exciting. Cannoli Tini is a free-form cannoli shell basket edged in chocolate and filled with a scrumptious tropical rum mousse. Then there’s the moist coconut and kumquat cake, which bursts with tropical flavors and is topped by sweet, soft candied kumquats and the crunch of toasted coconut. A creamy kumquat gelato adds contrast and another hit of concentrated taste.
Dark chocolate planet domes in the deconstructed tiramisu are filled with surprises.
My favorite, however, is the deconstructed tiramisu. In its own way, it’s as spectacular as Cena’s Best of the Bay-winning version. Il Ritorno’s twist is something right out of Cosmos; I keep hearing Neil deGrasse Tyson in my head. Four dark chocolate planet domes line up in a row. The Jupiter-sized planet is filled with ladyfinger crumble and coffee. Two smaller domes feature one molten caramel-rum core, one mocha anglaise. A moon of espresso ice cream orbits to the left, holding up a long lemon biscotti which could be a fragment from the broken rings of a confectionary Saturn. In any case, the dessert is out of this world.
The team of David Benstock and Joe Gattuso answer the gauntlet thrown by Chad Johnson at Élevage and Rooster & the Till’s Ferrell Alvarez in what is now an exciting horse race for BOTB’s best new restaurant. All I can say is, place your bets, diners. The thoroughbreds are in full gallop and we’re all in a position to win the trifecta. Do you feel lucky?
Well, you should. In 2012 and 2013, my first two years as CL’s restaurant critic, I found just three restaurants worthy of a 4.5 star rating (SideBern’s, Cafe Ponte, and Maritana Grille). In the last seven weeks, with Elévage, Rooster & The Till and now Il Ritorno, I’ve discovered three more — and the year’s not even half over.
I’d say those are good odds.