From Milan With Love

Carino's offers the best in cuisine from northern Italy.

Milan's 2,500-year history, its northern Italian perch along busy trade routes and regular invasions produced a city with a rich culinary tradition borne of local genius and centuries of foreign influences. And its chefs migrated around the world, carrying the city's legacy with them.One such chef practices his art here, producing excellent fare at Carino's Italian Caffé.

The food is typical Milanese, but unusually well done. The dishes parade a remarkably diverse variety of meat, fish, mussels, vegetables and pasta, sometimes served nearly au natural, and sometimes flavored with exotic spices and complex sauces. The service is good, the atmosphere warm and inviting, and its popularity with sophisticated regulars gives it an air of confidence that many restaurants lack.

Tucked incongruously in a modest beach shopping center called Mulligan's Plaza, the 150-seat restaurant represents the lifework of chef/owner Karim Nouri, who prefers to be addressed as "Chef Carino."

A native of the Milan region, Chef Carino's philosophy is straightforward: "You have to be on top of everything," he explained recently, his voice carrying a heavy Italian accent. "We prepare daily everything fresh; you've got to manage the kitchen well, or you won't succeed. The quality of the food must be consistent."

He learned to cook in Italy, worked in Manhattan and moved to Tampa Bay 20 years ago, where he then labored at various Italian restaurants, such as Lauro Ristorante and Caffé Amaretto, both in Tampa. But he prefers to run his own place, and operated eateries in Pinellas Park and elsewhere on the beach before settling into his current locale seven years ago.

The restaurant sits along Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach, nearly obscured by a big bridge.

Inside, the three dining rooms are decorated in a garden theme, with trellises hanging fake vines and planters full of artificial blooms. Salmon-colored tablecloths and spotless china and cutlery brighten the tables. Diners are nicely dressed, because even though it sits along the beach where people tend to prefer more casual clothes, the restaurant bears a quiet dignity and an underlying formality that is customary in Milan.

Carino's displays the relaxed assurance of a neighborhood favorite: "We get lots of locals here," Chef Carino confirmed.

There were seniors, young couples and even a few families sprinkled in the crowd. One night, we enjoyed watching the comings and goings of a wedding party celebrating in a private dining room.

During one visit, we found ourselves seated in a booth in the restaurant's new lounge, beneath a dramatic, draped tent of fabric. Nearby, people sat and laughed in comfy chairs, listening to Sinatra tunes played by a two-man band. The Martini Tester nearly went blotto on the strength of only two drinks — the bartender was very generous with the Tanqueray gin.

I was famished. I had run the Gasparilla Classic in the morning along Bayshore Boulevard, and spent the rest of the day sanding, scraping and caulking pine siding on my house, in preparation for painting. It was cold, dirty, manual labor that required hours of bending and squatting — on the roof. The gnaw of hunger ground in my stomach; still, I began to feel better the moment the hostess said we could order appetizers at the bar while we waited for a table in the restaurant.

A fragrant bowl of fresh mussels ($5.75), wafting steam and seated in a chipper, tomato-y sauce, was just the ticket to revive my spent body. It was followed shortly by an appetizer featuring a pinkish hunk of delectable smoked trout ($7.95) set with diced raw onion, capers, lemon and a pool of satiny dipping sauce. I started to feel human again but had to duel the fork of The Martini Tester, who had polished off the mussels and his first martini and was energetically tossing down his second, alternating sips with big chunks of trout.

During an earlier visit, I had tried another couple of appetizers: an accomplished antipasto, a selection of cold hors d'oeuvres ($5.95) —including thinly sliced and grilled eggplant and zucchini; sliced tomato topped with mozzarella; marinated red peppers and white beans neatly piled like pebbles on a beach. The pasta e fagioli soup ($3.50) was perfect on a cold night because it was hearty, heavy with white beans and bits of pasta, and steamy with heat.

A Caesar salad ($4, a la carte) sported fresh and crisp greens and elegant croutons, but its dressing was too thick and not smooth enough for my taste; the house salad, simple and crunchy with greens, carrots and tomato, was better. And Chef Carino's handmade loaves of bread, which arrived with big pats of unsalted butter, were exemplary. (All dinners come with bread, salad, vegetables and potatoes or a side of pasta).

Typically, Milan natives eat lightly during the day, maybe downing coffee and pastry for breakfast and bolting a quick sandwich at lunch, so the evening meal tends to be substantial. Appetizers are followed by a pasta course, then meat or fish; in Milan, pasta is not usually ordered as a stand-alone entree.

Still, Americans enjoy pasta for its own sake, and when you dine, you can certainly tailor your meal to your own habits. For instance, you could choose a couple of appetizers or a bowl of soup, and then as an entrée, try the chef's tender agnolloti principesse ($13.95), pasta stuffed with spinach, ricotta and Parmigiano, and served with asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes and cream sauce. Or try a simple spaghetti Bolognese, red meat sauce over a heaping pile of spaghetti ($10.95) cooked al dente.

For those who continue their meal with a fish or meat course, probably the best dish I sampled on all my visits was scaloppine piccata ($14.95), veal with white wine and lemon sauce. The dish entailed thinly sliced ovals of browned veal in a vibrant, citrus-y and luxuriant sauce that was so meltingly soft, it required hardly any chewing. It was accompanied by a steamy, garlicky stack of spinach and sliced, browned potatoes.

Also on the menu were stuffed veal scaloppine, a nice version of pollo Fiorentine ($12.95), chicken breast with spinach, mozzarella and cream sauce; rack of lamb ($19.95), and lobster ($25.95) matched with various types of sauces and pasta.

After all that, we needed to pause before dessert. We sat a few minutes while the efficient waiter cleared the dishes and refilled water glasses. We studied the other diners and swapped jokes; sipped coffee, doodled on napkins and gazed out the window at the traffic speeding by on Gulf Boulevard.

Finally, we were ready to continue to the finale, and found to our delight a worthy selection of homemade desserts. My favorite was a creamy tangerine sorbet ($4) frozen in its bright orange fruit peel jacket, its topknot cut out in a circle so you could delve inside with a spoon. It was so light and delicate that it quickly surrendered to the warmth of the mouth, leaving a frosty memory on my tongue like a jet contrail hanging in the sky.

Or try a cannoli ($4), just slightly sweet pastry shaped into a cylinder and filled with sweetened ricotta.

So forget the airline tickets, forget the Italian phrase books. You can taste Milan's varied cuisine right here at home, courtesy of Chef Carino.

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