That’s life

Tampa’s iconic Donatello serves old-fashioned Italian at a price.

click to enlarge BEYOND THE SEA: Donatello's Salmone alla Stromboli adds kick with pink shrimp and crisp asparagus. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
BEYOND THE SEA: Donatello's Salmone alla Stromboli adds kick with pink shrimp and crisp asparagus.

“Sinatra would be at home at this grande dame.”

Your response to this Zagat survey quote, touted on Donatello’s website, will largely reflect your reaction to the Tampa icon. Nostalgic or outdated? Dreamy or patriarchal? Classy or overwrought? Priceless or expensive?

So, to be fair, and in the interest of full disclosure, I don’t get the allure of The Rat Pack — too much drunken frat-boy-in-a-tux vibe. Give me the smooth elegance of Nat “King” Cole any day. Couple that with a recent European jaunt reveling in surprising flavors from Italy’s avant-garde chefs, and Donatello left me underwhelmed.

Donatello’s interior features stucco arches, tapestries, oversized gilded paintings and gold-leaf ceiling tiles, with rose bouquets on every table. The place is kind of old-school Italian and a little gaudy, but then so is the Duomo in Siena. The difference is that Italy is also home to sleek, modern trend-setting simplicity, both in design and in culinary circles.

At Donatello’s price points, diners should expect the pursuit of perfection. In recent months, though, I’ve reviewed a pair of Italian restaurants offering more gastronomic surprise at a fraction of the cost. And one, in particular, serves more complex sparkling wine at half the tab.

Owners Guido and Gino Tiozzo hail from Venice, and the menu reflects that northern Italian bent while featuring traditional dishes, covering the length of Italy from Milan to the Amalfi coast. My table opts for classic appetizers. Cozze alla marinara features fresh mussels sautéed with parsley and garlic that are, sadly, absolutely drowned in a tangy, traditional red sauce. I know Americans prefer far more liquid than Italians, but in this case, there is so much sauce that the mussels are hard to eat without feeling that you should be finger-painting with the kids.

Pasta e fagioli alla Romana is the classical Roman soup of beans and pasta that goes by the amusing nickname “pasta fazool” in Italian-American slang. Donatello’s version is conventional, in a pancetta and tomato-laced broth that lets the nice al dente pasta and beans shine. But it’s twice the price of similar soup elsewhere.

Prosciutto di Parma con melone is a timeless yet simple pairing, one that requires the best ingredients served at their peak. The fattiness of the paper-thin, carefully cured ham should be balanced by the sweetness of a perfect, ripe cantaloupe slice that it holds in a tender gastronomic embrace. However, when the prosciutto is cold and the melon isn’t ripe (as was the case on this visit), it lands on your palate with a disconcerting thud. And, at $19 a pop… the thud continues to reverberate.

We move to the entrees with hope that our upcoming dishes will rise to the price point. Salmone alla Stromboli poaches fresh salmon, and adds some kick with pink shrimp and crisp asparagus in a creamy sauce with bright acidity from a splash of white wine. Scaloppina di vitello pulcinella sautés thinly pounded veal with savory prosciutto and creamy fontina cheese; it’s a comforting combination. But here’s the problem.

These are just a few of the featured dishes from Donatello’s extensive menu based on century-old recipes. At their best, the entrées are what you’d expect: classic Italian, generally lovingly presented, but the price demands innovation or finesse that is not present.

A perfect example is linguine alle vongole, or linguine with clams in a white wine sauce, a well-known standard. I always prefer fresh pasta, but high-quality, imported dried Italian pasta is also delicious. A dining companion inquires about the pasta’s origin. Sadly, servers say it's either Barilla or DeCecco, both of which are sold in American supermarkets.

The best pasta, however, comes from a handful of small, family-owned companies that use traditional, artisanal methods. At least five of these export to the United States: Rustichella d’Abruzzo; Benedetto Cavalieri, from the Apulia region; Martelli, from Tuscany; Latini, from the Marche region; or Pastificio di Martino from Naples.

These pastas are extruded through a bronze dye, which leaves a rough surface on the dough so that it retains the sauce for contact on the tongue to transmit the full flavor of 100 percent Italian durum wheat. Surely for a $28 entrée, we can expect premium pasta. And, while the clams are sweet, they also arrive overly salty and full of grit. “Can you hear me chewing?” a tablemate exclaims.

Premium prices demand attention to detail that goes beyond tuxedos and roses. After sharing an unremarkable tiramisu and paying the ample check, we head for the exits. This apparently entails a time-honored ritual for the women of accepting a rose with a kiss. One female companion accepts this gift with grace. But another prefers to skip this Sinatra-esque ritual. Despite her efforts to keep a stiff elbow, an unwanted kiss is thrust upon her.

Restaurateurs need to read their customers. As we escape and stroll toward the car, she exclaims, “If I wanted to kiss a strange Italian, I’d go to Rome.”

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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