Brandon's culinary Wonder Woman

Della’s After Dark is “Dolce” Debbie Frangipane’s culinary playground.

click to enlarge LIKE MAGIC: The grilled flatbread topped with prosciutto and arugula. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
LIKE MAGIC: The grilled flatbread topped with prosciutto and arugula.

Della’s After Dark is a culinary dream come true with a storyline out of the pages of a superhero comic book. Imagine the movie version. A screen-filling close-up: poor restaurateur Beverly DellaGrotta wipes a tear from her eye. For 11 years she’s been transforming her popular Brandon deli, Della’s Delectables, into an upscale, fine wine, live jazz restaurant on weekends. And, as in every Italian mother’s dream, her son (Alex) is the chef. But the brooding onscreen image tells us something is amiss.

The dramatic catalyst: Alex is gone and despite her best efforts to find a new chef, Della’s After Dark must close. A pall descends upon Brandon; the zombie-like masses wander aimlessly and silently scream, “Isn’t someone out there who can save us?”

The screen brightens. We cut to a tight shot of Debbie Frangipane, an unassuming 50ish woman. As the camera pulls back, it’s clear we are in Venice, living la dolce vita. But then our heroine ducks behind an arch in St. Marks Square after a 14-month stay following a mid-life dream, and emerges from a spinning vortex in blinding chef’s whites. No longer do we see simple Ms. F, but our super hero, “Dolce Debbie,” as she is called. With a hop, skip, and a jump in our comic book world, Debbie streaks across the sky, whisk and chef’s knife in hand, her cape-like apron flapping all the way back to her Valrico home.

Cut to Della’s interior. A fast motion time lapse transforms the deli. Black velvet curtains hanging from the ceiling are drawn to cover the soda fountain and create a black wall with the elegant simplicity of a Chanel couture frock. A swirl of fairy-godparents (or elves, if you prefer) places crisp black linens on all the tables, plus gleaming crystal and shining cutlery to transform the modest storefront. Wasn’t this just a deli at 3 p.m.?

Before you can shout out “Wonder Woman” (or your comic book savior exclamation of choice), Debbie takes charge and your table is filled with an absolutely delicious array of luscious, impeccably fresh appetizers. An ample pile of crisp calamari pairs with a smashing sauce duo of lime and chipotle aioli. A delicate white porcelain tureen cradles traditional French onion soup. An ambrosial beef broth filled with sweet slow-cooked caramelized onions is studded with croutons, and topped with toasted Gruyere cheese.

The warm grilled Caesar finds the right balance of slightly charred hearts of romaine drizzled with a garlic vinaigrette, finished with house made croutons and shaved Parmesan, and topped with (shock of shocks) seldom seen beautiful white anchovies.

Like magic, a crisp grilled flatbread floats down before you on a wooden board. A thin schmear of marinara is topped with salty prosciutto and peppery arugula and our table is very, very, happy.

But can our comic book heroine deliver on the entrees?

The camera moves behind the curtain and we see a multi-armed creature moving at Flash-like speed, splitting an Australian lamb rack into lollipops with one swat of her Wolverine sharp hand. The pops get a Greek yogurt bath and a dusting of Parmigiano before being grilled to perfection. Add a bed of Kalamata olive pate and a dreamy saffron risotto and your palate is singing a happy tune indeed.

We envision the ingredients of Chicken Spiedini coming together in slow motion, comic book cinema-style. Chunks of chicken, red peppers, Vidalia onions and grape tomatoes all fly high in the air and, like magic, are skewered in one smooth motion before hitting the grill. When two warm skewers come to the table atop creamy polenta, the taste medley just makes you smile.

A towering 3-inch tall beef filet mignon studded with coarsely ground peppercorns, has a perfect sear, and a quick flambé with a cognac sauce. Combined with sweet parsnip puree and al dente grilled asparagus and “Dolce Debbie” has another transporting hit.

The special of the night reflects the influence of her Venetian getaway: crisp seared duck breast, fanned out all pink and rosy, snuggles with duck confit ravioli floating in a light, delicate, transporting Gorgonzola cream sauce with crispy duck cracklins that add a welcome crunch. Heavenly!

One the sweet side, there’re poached pears plus a Marsala “Cassata” sponge cake with lemon mascarpone gelato and pistachio brittle. Luckily, Della’s version of the ubiquitous flourless chocolate torte is light instead of cloyingly dense. The individual rich, velvety cake accented by fresh raspberries, a Chambord-tinged whipped cream and a drizzle of white wine raspberry purée is deliciously balanced. A dessert special fills puffy profiteroles with a Champagne-peach “Bellini” sorbet and a fan of thin and juicy grilled sliced peaches that is simply scrumptious.

When it’s time to end the meal, Della’s offers a coffee lovers dream with “illy” brand espresso and cappuccino from Italy in a “pick-your-bean” collection of medium or dark roasts from Brazil, Guatemala, or Ethiopia.

The good news is that as our comic book film saga comes to a lovely soft-focus end, with the mellifluous sounds of Della’s live jazz at a level that still allows conversation, Beverly’s eyes are dry and the sad zombie vibe has left Brandon — because “Dolce Debbie” is now running the traditional, but delectable, kitchen on Friday and Saturday nights. Who knew one of the Bay’s best new restaurants would pop up in Brandon? Wherever you are, make the trek.

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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