UD and I found it necessary to cross the tracks and venture into one of the nicer areas of Tampa this afternoon during the course of some errand-running (thanks for not turning your water hoses on these stray East Hillsborough dogs, Palma Ceia residents!). By 2:30, we were absolutely famished...but at this odd hour, most places we were interested in trying either didn't open until dinner on Saturday or were through with lunch and would not be serving again until then. Desperately trolling the avenues of South Tampa for interesting, available fare, it was starting to look like we would have to default to Grillsmith before we passed out (not the end of the world, but also not very scintillating). That's when I remembered Pane Rustica...a bakery, cafe and restaurant in the area that I had heard a lot of good things about and had been wanting to try. Having checked out their website a few times, I knew they offered extended lunch hours. We plugged their location into the trusty GPS and found (to our joy) that we were only about a mile away. Whew...barely dodged the chain restaurant bullet this time (talk about epicurean perils!).
In spite of its strip mall location and line of deli cases, Pane Rustica is quite lovely and inviting inside. The bar area (where we dined) is very comfortable and has a really nice vibe. Every staff member we interacted with (and there were several) were top notch...interested, engaged, passionate about the food, professional and polite. I was very impressed.
Okay...let's get to the important stuff. Pane Rustica's regular lunch menu consisted of mostly tasty-sounding paninis, soups, salads and pizzas, but the Lunch Specials menu looked even more exciting. Downside of this was that they had sold out of several of most appealing items (but that's what happens sometimes when you wait until 3:00 PM to go to lunch). Don't worry, though...this story has a happy ending (and, please...get your minds out of the gutter :p)!
Since we were freaking starving, we asked our server to quickly bring us a slice of pizza from the deli case (any kind available - her choice) while we enjoyed a glass of wine and perused the menu. She returned with a large slice which had been considerately cut in half and placed on two appetizer plates. It was very simple...just sauce, herbs, cheese and tomatoes...but it was absolutely wonderful (and I'm not just saying that because I was about five minutes away from fainting). Sure, I generally prefer a lot more "stuff" on my pizza, but this crust was simply insane...thin, crispy and delicious, with just the right amount of cheesy, herbaceous goodness on top (I daresay it was the best pizza crust I've ever put in my mouth). We both loved it and it kept us from getting drunk on half a glass of wine while we waited for our "real" food. The photo doesn't do "The Precious" justice, but here you go!
Pumpkin soup is one of those things (like duck, foie gras and bread pudding) that I can never resist, so I was excited to see Spiced Pumpkin Soup with Caramelized Apple Crema as the soup of the day. It was sooo good and was served at a warm (but not hot) temperature...it was wonderful and almost dessert-like in its rich, spicy, semi-sweetness. I loved it, but could not finish the generous bowl.
My first choice was one of the daily special offerings of Roasted Acorn Squash filled with Pepper Jack Cheese, Cilantro & Chile Chicken Salad...but due to our verylate arrival, it was understandably sold out. I must add that, while I was bummed that so many of the specials were sold out, I also liked the level of freshness implied by the "small-batch" availability. Our server/bartender offered a quick improv of the roasted squash filled with a different chicken salad on the menu (Grape and Walnut Chicken Salad). That sounded good, too, so I went with it. It was some top-notch chicken salad which was beautifully presented and nicely garnished with autumn fruits. Oh...and don't get me started on the fabu bread. This really is a bakery, people!
My better half (whom I don't refer to as a "Super-Hero" for nothing) boldly opted for the "Shut Up & Eat!!!" menu offering, which is described as "Don't ask, you'll love it!". Basically, they bring you whatever they want to and you cheerfully snarf it. This proved to be quite accurate. What appeared was a beautiful plate of really outstanding redskin (I think) potato hash with peppers, huge shrimp and some kind of ethereal sauce drizzled over the whole thing for $11. He clutched this dish to close to his chest and demanded that I stay the hell away (keeping me at bay with his fork tines). I guess it's true what they say..."no guts, no glory". *sniff*
We were stuffed to the gills after this repast, but could not pass up dessert after a hellishly stringent week of low carb dieting...so we waddled to the deli counter to make our selections from the stunning array of beautiful bakery treats. Underdog's pupils morphed into little hearts when he laid eyes on this pecan bar. It was similar to pecan pie, but with a much higher ratio of chopped pecans to pecan pie filling (there was just enough filling to create cohesion). Neither pastry nor topping disappointed!
The eclairs looked amazing and mine did not disappoint. It was perfect...and I was surprised to find rich and creamy dark chocolate inside as opposed to a vanilla cream or custard filling. Decadent.
With dinner entree offerings such as Gnocchi (seared filet tips, fava beans, mushrooms, herbs, red wine reduction) and Oak Grilled Pork Tenderloin (vanilla bean whipped sweet potatoes, apple cranberry chutney, clove spiced demi), I can't wait to return and try Pane Rustica in the evening. Very, VERY nice.