Instead of patrons queued up at a teller’s window they sit at tables scattered about the tiled floor. Replacing the tellers and their windows is a bar with its tenders. Rather than being greeted at the door by a sleepy-eyed bank guard an energetic maître d' meets you and guides you to a table. This was certainly not a bank, but rather Bernini, a restaurant specializing in Italian cuisine.
The Belle of Ballast Point and I met up with our dear friends, Sweet Polly and her Underdog, for dinner this past Saturday after Polly and I attended a three hour Florida Food Conference earlier in the day at the St. Pete campus of USF.
As a side note, the conference sessions Polly and I attended covered topics such as effective food writing and photography. The writing segment was lectured by Janet Keeler, Food and Travel Editor of the Tampa Bay Times, while her husband, Scott Keeler of the Times, covered the photography breakout.
Polly and I agreed that while both sessions were informative, they did not break new ground for us, especially in the areas of sentence structure, spelling, and grammar (i.e. freshman English). What did amaze us was the lack of attendance by other Tampa Bay food bloggers, many of whom could have benefited greatly from these sessions.
Now, where was I? Oh yes, Bernini.
Menus were presented, and Jason promptly arrived to take our drink orders: a traditional $2 special martini for Underdog, and a bottle of Sonoma-Cutrer’s signature Chardonnay with fruity aromas of green apple, lime, and pineapple complemented with touches of nougat, and caramel for three of us to share.
The table decided to try three of Bernini’s appetizers.
The crispy, breaded Eggplant Bonanno layered with ricotta, prosciutto, fresh basil, and topped with fresh mozzarella, basil pesto and tomato sauce was the small plate that received the most accolades.
The pepper crusted, seared, thin beef tenderloin Carpaccio with capers, red onions, shaved pecorino cheese, crostini, and white truffle balsamic drizzle was one of the best Carpaccio dishes that I can remember. That balsamic reduction put this dish over the pinnacle of excellence.
Our third sampling was the fresh Prince Edward Island bleu cheese mussels sautéed with fennel, shallots, grape tomatoes, apple wood bacon, Gorgonzola cheese, and finished with fresh herbs. This was a well-prepared dish, but nothing out of the ordinary. As I have written before, sometimes the sameness of Tampa Bay restaurant menus and food preparation is stifling.
It was about here that Jason informed us that we had consumed the last bottle of Sonoma-Cutrer, so the ladies switched to a creamy, rich and toasty Crème de Lys Chardonnay with hints of juicy pineapple and green apple, with a pinch of vanilla. I decided on the Michael-David petit Syrah with a pleasantly smoky nose along with plum, blackberry, and black raspberry fruit characteristics to accompany my entrée. But, ladies first.
For her large plate, my bride chose the pistachio crusted fresh Gulf grouper served with herb roasted mashed potatoes and broccolini finished with a Marsala brown butter sauce. Of this dish, she stated that it was the best she has had on this side of Tampa Bay. That is a glowing compliment from a person who claims not to be an aficionado of finny stuff from the sea.
The other member of the female persuasion in our dinner party requested the crispy skin roast duck. This Maple Leaf Farm’s half duck was served with goat cheese mashed potatoes and broccolini, finished with a dried cherry and vanilla Chianti demi-glace. I seriously considered arm wrestling Sweet Polly just for that heavenly crispy skin. She probably would have whipped my butt, so I stayed on my side of the table.
I tried a bite of Underdog’s entrée, the Veal Chop Aneto. This chop topped with prosciutto and Fontina cheese served over the utterly fantastic white truffle risotto and finished with sherry wine, mushroom, and dill reduction with a splash of cream was superb. Our table raved over that risotto.
|Photo courtesy of Epicurean Perils of Sweet Polly|
I was torn between the Cioppino and the Pork Osso Buco. Jason suggested that the Osso Buco would be a good choice, so I went with that. This slow braised pork shank with natural au jus, roasted fennel, saffron risotto, and a grilled carrot wasn't particularly memorable. It was fall-off the bone tender, but was essentially just a shank on a bed of yellow rice in a puddle of broth. There was nothing unique about this dish to set it apart from others I have tried around Tampa Bay.
For dessert, the table ordered the sampler platter: Flourless Chocolate Cake, Cassata Cake, and Crème Brulee. I am not much of a dessert person, but I do love Crème Brulee. This one was spectacular! I am not even sure if I shared with my tablemates. If I didn’t, then by-gones you guys; I’ll try to do better next time.
When all the food and drinks for the table were tallied, we split the bill in half. Our share came to $130.28 and we added a 20% gratuity for Jason. Ubiquity aside, we enjoyed our culinary adventure at Bernini. As always, our greatest pleasure was dining with our dear friends, Sweet Polly and Underdog.