Exceptional Italian

Villa Gallace feeds the stomach and nourishes the soul

click to enlarge PERFECT ENDING: The sweet and delicate tangerine sorbet. - SHAWN JACOBSON
PERFECT ENDING: The sweet and delicate tangerine sorbet.

The other day, I learned a very serious lesson about culinary complacency. I was driving down a road not 20 minutes from my house, a road that I've probably driven down a hundred times before, and I passed a restaurant that I've never seen. An Italian restaurant. Sure, Villa Gallace is located on an awkward triangular lot with an entrance that faces away from the street, but that's hardly an excuse. It's my job at the Planet to hunt these places down, and Italian is the favorite cuisine of everyone in my family. I decided the place must be new.

I called my family (marinara buffs, all) and invited them to dinner at this promising new Italian restaurant. An hour later, as we were flipping through the thick, pleather-bound menu emblazoned with the Gallace family crest (a busy conglomerate of grape leaves, armor helms, crowns and a crowing cock), I casually asked the waiter when the restaurant had opened.

"Ten years ago."

Oops. For the next 10 minutes or so, our table conversation centered around two topics: the rich, slightly currant-tinged flavor of our '99 Chianti Classico, and why in the world we'd never dined at Villa Gallace before. Was it because there were Italian restaurants we adored that were closer to our house? Were we blind to any local place we hadn't been visiting since the '80s?

An Indian Rocks Beach restaurant doesn't reach double-digit years without some sort of reputation for quality. As we mused over our orders, we watched patrons finish their meals and leave, always with a hearty salute to owner Luigi Gallace, and nearly as often with a promise to "see [him] again soon."

The diminutive dining room can get a bit noisy when filled to capacity (as it often is during the tourist season), but the boisterous mood only adds to the impression that diners have stepped into a pasta sauce commercial come to life. The décor is kept simple: a bit of greenery, some framed prints of Italian artwork and a few dozens signed celebrity portraits in the corridor leading to the restrooms.

My favorite touch was the mantle clustered with framed photographs of the Gallace family. (If you ask about them, Luigi will happily identify every single one, from the 62-year-old black-and-white of his dad as a toddler, balanced on grandpa's knee, to the recent snapshot of his infant niece, presiding in a space of honor near the center of the shelf.)

We ordered like Italians. A plate of classic antipasto misto ($8.95) featured wafer-thin slices of ham, salami and proscuitto, along with spicy pickled veggies, roasted red peppers, a few types of cheese, a spattering of olives, fresh tomatoes and spinach leaves. At some restaurants, mixed antipasto plates are drowned in olive oil or salad dressing, but the drizzle on this version highlighted the variety of flavors on the plate without overwhelming them.

Passed around the table for everyone to sample, the dish started the meal off in the correct sharing spirit. Another appetizer, gnocchi gorgonzola ($8.95) was more like a side dish. The gnocchi themselves were potato perfection, but the cream sauce was a bit bland for my taste - I'd expected something with gorgonzola to pack more of a blue-cheese punch. My mother told me that her last-minute order of pasta e fagioli ($4.95) was one of the best she'd ever had, a pronouncement I fear might hurt a few feelings among her saucier friends.

For entrees, I couldn't resist trying out the filetto Diane (eight ounces, $21.95), which was grilled to a gorgeous, deep red rare (as per my instructions) and served practically swimming in a creamy mushroom sauce with a hint of mustard. Though I was surprised by the amount of sauce (and scraped some to the side), I thought the steak was delicious. A traditional, caper-studded veal piccata ($16.95) was similarly well-endowed in the sauce department, and in this case, the light, lemony, white wine sauce set the thin veal filets off flawlessly.

We ordered several pasta dishes, and were pleased with every one, from the giant square of cheesy lasagna ($13.95) to rigatoni in a thick, slow-cooked meat sauce ($13.95). My favorite pasta-based dish was the shrimp alla Villa Gallace ($16.95), which featured several jumbo Gulf shrimp tossed in a spicy, garlicky tomato sauce (another restaurant might call it fra diavolo) and served on a bed of linguini. Each of these dishes were served on enormous platters.

Afterward, we sampled several options from Villa Gallace's dessert menu. The clear standout of the lot was a frozen, tangerine sorbet served in the citrus fruit's own skin. Imported from Italy, the sweet, delicate confection proved an ideal finish to such a filling meal.

Throughout the meal, the Villa Gallace staff treated us to uniformly exquisite service, from the waiter who gave us an impromptu lesson on bootlegging lemon liqueur to another waiter who wouldn't rest until everyone at my table was served to his or her heart's content. One of my more finicky companions asked the owner if he could order the evening special and substitute more than half the ingredients, and Luigi made it happen without batting an eye.

I can't get enough of restaurants like this, or restaurateurs like Luigi Gallace. When an establishment treats eating out like a celebratory occasion, and is more than happy to celebrate alongside its customers, it reaches into the very heart of what makes the idea of dinner with others such an invigorating experience.

The people at Villa Gallace understand that you don't navigate the awkward parking lot for a plate of boiled noodles (even if they are some damn fine boiled noodles) - you come for the experience, from the first dip of crusty bread in seasoned olive oil to the final sip of sparkling dessert wine. At Villa Gallace, they give you food for the stomach and nourishment for the soul.

Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected]. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.