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click to enlarge Armani Chef Massimo Patano - Sean Deren
Sean Deren
Armani Chef Massimo Patano

It's one of the most famous Bay area restaurants, a sleek home of high rollers, set lavishly atop a fine hotel with a fabulous view of bays, skyline and beach. It's the only local restaurant this year to win four stars from the Mobil Travel Guide. We wondered: Is Armani's truly as good as its ratings?

My expeditions there answered the question unequivocally: It sure is.

From the elegant simplicity of its minimalist decor, to its tender, Northern Italian pasta with a divinely subtle sauce, to a commanding view of Tampa Bay and the misty outline of downtown Tampa, there is just no place quite like Armani's.

Located atop the Hyatt Regency Westshore hotel, it has for years been the only four-star restaurant in the Bay area. (Florida lacks a single five-star place, such as Alain Ducasse in New York City; Seeger's in Atlanta; or Ginza Sushiko in Beverly Hills).

Take a wad of money and try Armani's for a special occasion: Leave your car with the valet, and ride 14 floors up, to the 110-seat restaurant, three sides of which are graced with spacious, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows.

Go early, so you can unwind at Armani's spectacular adjacent lounge, done in the same tasteful style as the restaurant, but with a more modern feel — cushy chairs, bowls of nuts, a pianist playing bluesy favorites. Order from the expert bartender a dirty martini ($8) — the glass emitting a pungent scent of bleu cheese — and contemplate the nature of the good life, circa 2002. Spy on the chic crowd of laughing party people or the slow progress of the setting sun.

Note the snowy, linen-covered table, the big, black napkins and heavy, expensive plates, the silver glistening in the candlelight. The excellent waitstaff swings into action, bringing the 198-bottle wine list, dinner menu, water, bread, butter and beverages. The atmosphere is glam but not stuffy; you can hear guffawing from distant tables.

And all that happens before the fantastic food of Chef de Cuisine Massimo Patano arrives.

One of the appetizers blew me away. Called a crespelle ($9.95), it was made from crabmeat sauteed with sherry and stuffed in a crepe; the dish was then drenched in a creamy lemon mustard and cheese fondue and baked. The smooth sauce carried the lightest hint of lemon. It was like eating blossoms. My extremely particular dining companion ordered a cold appetizer — thinly-sliced prosciutto with fruit and Parmesan ($9.50) — and pronounced its meat of unusually high quality, considering we were in the U.S. and not sitting in some trattoria in Italy.

We tried two salads, both exemplary. One was baby spinach with roasted duck breast, goat cheese and black walnuts, tossed in warm mango vinaigrette ($8.50). The duck was fresh and soft, and sat among greens slightly wilted by the hot breath of the vinaigrette. All I could say was "Whew!" Another salad was a simple Caesar ($8), a typical assemblage of romaine greens but distinguished with buttery, hand-made croutons and memorably frisky dressing.

For the pasta course, she ordered orecchiette al forno ($18, full plate; $11.50, half-plate), ear-shaped semolina pasta baked in a Bolognese sauce with mozzarella. It was sprightly with tomato, creamy with cheese and so satisfying that light eaters might stop there and be perfectly happy. On another visit, I tried the pasta called canneloni all'Emiliana ($18), delicate pasta tubes filled with veal and spinach and baked in a tomato Parmesan cream sauce.

As an entree, my companion opted for a 2-inch-thick wedge of sea bass ($26.75) served with crispy vegetables and bathed in a beer and balsamic vinegar reduction. I tried the classic veal scaloppine ($26.95), served with wild mushrooms and cognac in a creamy black truffle sauce.

The fish was cooked exactly right; it lounged in a vibrant sauce, a lovely contrast to the bland nature of the fish. The veal medallions were light but heavily sauced with a rich concoction bearing so many different facets it took me a few minutes of savoring in order to really taste everything. It was amazing.

On another visit, I tried herb-roasted rack of lamb ($27.95), served with garlic, rosemary, goat cheese, tomatoes and white wine. The lamb was so tender it melted like butter in the mouth, and its complex sauce, emitting a panoply of scents, sent a shiver of delight right through me.

As if the sophisticated food wasn't enough, the restaurant opens, via double doors, to an open-air patio, where you can take a spin outside mid-meal, listen to the rustle of water from a tiny pond, and, wine in hand, watch the planes land next door at Tampa International. On this night, it was cold out, and thus doubly refreshing.

After our outdoor pause, we continued with dessert. The waiter brought a half-dozen items set daintily upon a caddy, so you could look before you chose. On the tray are the usual suspects, like creme brulee or tiramisu, but the restaurant has upgraded its desserts to include other, more exotic fare as well.

We tried Armani's torte ($5.75), a tower of chocolate cake encased in a waxy frosting flavored with Frangelico liquor. Gooey, delectable and addictive! On another visit, we tried the berry pie ($5.75), one of the restaurant's few disappointments. Its crust was too cakey soft, and its filling too sweet. It needed something more assertive and crunchy at the bottom.

My favorite dessert was pistachio cake ($7), a foamy green dome with a spray of toasted pistachio nuts tossed across it as if they had just blown off the tree and happened to land upon my plate. Delicate as a cloud, not too sweet, creamily textured, it was out of this world.

The restaurant's excellent service and terrific food didn't leave much room for criticism. Oh, I guess I could gripe about the bread, which is not bad but could be better, and my excessively picky dining pal complained about the espresso — too weak and insufficiently hot. On one of my visits, the hostess lost my reservation. But all in all, Armani's is as close to perfection as you're going to get in the Bay area.

Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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