Before Chris Ponte took over the former Bracci and rechristened it Ponte's Tuscan Grill, I had never eaten there. Never really noticed, to tell you the truth. There are almost too many Italian restaurants to count, so another one — in a strip mall, no less — was just another name that slid past my consciousness.
But Chris Ponte is one of the culinary darlings of a Bay area dining scene suspiciously bereft of locally celebrated chefs. He eschews the mainstream seats of culinary power — SoHo, Downtown St. Pete, or Ybor — in favor of suburban Clearwater, and his Café Ponte has already made it clear that exceptional dining can be found in a strip mall off Ulmerton. Thus, Ponte's Tuscan Grill sparked my interest.
For good reason, too. Although the new endeavor shows little of the innovation common down the road at Café Ponte, the man's touch is noticeable in the stellar cooking techniques and streamlined elegance that flows out of Ponte's Tuscan Grill's kitchen under the care of Chef Tim Thompson, Ponte's culinary proxy.
Like Bracci, Ponte's Tuscan still serves pizzas, perhaps because Ponte has always recognized the power of upscale comfort food that doesn't bust the budget. In any case, the pies are not overlooked, each anchored by a crisp but chewy crust and excellent toppings, like slices of tender potato and crisp bacon, cheddar cheese, and an aromatic splash of truffle oil ($13).
In fact, there appears to be a conscious concern for pricing, at least in the first half of the meal. None of the starters break the $10 mark, although a few push the line at $9.90. Big plates of carpaccio and bowls full of mussels make that a great deal.
Or you can pick up an $8 plate of calamari that is some of the best cooked in the area — in and out of a fryer in mere seconds — leaving the flesh so tender there's almost no need to chew. In fact, it's fried so quickly that the breading barely has time to set into a flaky, crumbly shell. There's also shrimp "bruschetta" ($8) where the bread is a crunchy pedestal for plump, beautifully cooked shellfish doused in buttery broth, super-sweet diced tomatoes and the briny punch of black olives.
While Ponte's Tuscan Grill's white bean dip ($7) is forgettable, the white bean soup ($5) is worth a taste. It's a rustic dish, the flavorful broth dotted by meaty sage, shreds of deep green escarole and tiny hunks of rich sausage.
Sure, kudos go to the affordable starters, but Ponte's Tuscan has also borrowed the regrettable practice of a la carte sides common to big-city American steakhouses — great for sharing but tough on the wallet. What makes it worse is how darn good they are. Asparagus ($7) is Technicolor green and so crisp the stalks snap with a succulent crunch when I bite down. More working-class, green beans ($6) are dressed up with a brothy tomato sauce, the bright acidity heightening the natural flavor of the fresh tubes.
Mascarpone mashed potatoes ($6) are burdened by too much of a good thing — in this case, a puddle of clarified butter pooled atop decadent potatoes that don't need the extra help. It still doesn't stop me from pulling heaping spoonfuls from the less buttery center of the dish. Polenta ($6) is more subdued, its deeply toasted corn flavor ratcheted up by bits of rich, herbaceous sausage.
These four sides are easily enough for eight people, so we don't even have the stomach to delve into the cheesy polenta fries, fancy mac-and-cheese, or any of the dozen others. Oh right, there are still entrees.
Ravioli ($19) is stuffed with a grainy puree of lobster, pedestrian in spite of the luscious truffle sauce and bright tomatoes. Tuna ($18) sacrifices success for excess, the too-large hunk pretty to look at but difficult to flavor through and through, leaving the ruby flesh bland and uninteresting.
It's nice to see a "Tuscan" steakhouse that actually has the moxie to put a Florentine cut ($29 per person) on the meat list. This double-thick porterhouse, the quintessential grilled meat of central Italy, weighs in at over 2.5 pounds. It's meant for two people — two people with a mean appetite, if you count sides.
Or you can "settle" for a 16-ounce porcini-rubbed ribeye ($24) with a crust so dark it could be burnt. It isn't, just caramelized 'shrooms brought right to the edge, the kind of trick only a gifted chef in a professional kitchen can pull off. That crisp, salty blanket surrounds tender flesh stained pink and red. Honestly, the meat is nothing to get too excited about, but the preparation is perfect. These days, that's more than you can hope for.
A heads-up to all worthy restaurants out there: If you serve a roast chicken ($16), that's how I'm going to gauge your kitchen skills. It might be the cheapest, most overlooked item in the entrée list of most restaurants. At Ponte's Tuscan, it's also one of the best. It's half a small bird, chopped into manageable chunks, united by exceptionally moist, seasoned meat and a crisp skin impregnated with chopped herbs, black pepper and garlic. Fabulous.
There are also specials, like that tomatoey Italian bouillabaisse called cioppino ($23), a staple of California Italian-Americans. This version is loaded with a plethora of fish and shellfish, all ideally steamed, all infused with the heady broth.
Desserts could use some help, especially a panna cotta ($8) with the texture of extruded rubber. It's very possible you won't be hungry by the end of your meal anyway, so that might not be a big deal.
Ponte's Tuscan Grill isn't Ponte Lite. It's a different animal entirely. But this restaurant does display an honest culinary identity, as well as the honed kitchen skills and attention to detail that have made Chris Ponte a force in the Bay area food scene. And with his name on the marquee, people will be paying attention.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.