Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Laughing Cat, Tampa, FL

I'm about to make a very bold statement.  Without getting into a whole "apples and oranges" discussion that could keep me writing (and drinking wine) all night...this may have been the finest meal I've ever eaten of its price point (and even for higher price points) in the Tampa Bay area.  Believe me...I'm as shocked as you are.  I've heard a little positive buzz about the "Cat", but have never really been inspired to check it out.  Italian food is not really my favorite and when I DO want it, I usually hit one of my all time faves (Bernini) when I'm in Ybor.  Well...Bernini was closed tonight (but even though I cheated on you, I DO still love you Bernini...I guess I'm just an "open relationship" kinda girl). Don't tell Underdog I said that.

After catching a 4:00 PM flick at Centro Ybor, Dogboy and I made our way down the street to The Laughing Cat.  The modest exterior of the historic corner building, as well as the rustic interior (painted brick walls and industrial-style track lighting) did little to prepare me for the gastronomic delight that was in store for me.

Again, we eat at a ridiculously early hour (yes, we're old) so don't let the empty look of the place fool you.  We arrived shortly after 6:00 on a Sunday night and the restaurant was filling up nicely before we finished our meal.

The Laughing Cat is bona fide in that they only serve Italian wines.  I adore a big, buttery, heavily-oaked California Chardonnay, so I was a little skeered that I would have to settle for something less than I prefer...but our amazing server, Rick, immediately assessed my needs and presented me with a full-bodied Italian white that totally won my heart...and for only $9 per glass (of which I had three).  Yes, I'm a wino.

This is where I should start to raise holy hell because of the huge transgression which occurred when the bread was served.  That's right...foil wrapped butter pats arrived with it (NOOOOOO!).  Honestly, they're generally enough to make me go postal....but I am going to grant a rare pardon in this instance because everything else we had was so damn wonderful (including the hot, crispy bread).

We started with a couple of soups by the cup.  I ordered the seafood bisque, which was creamy, sherry-laced-liciousness and loaded up with crustacean goodness.  Rick explained to us how the stock was made (with lobster heads and other shellfish cast-offs) in advance and then held so the bisque could be flash cooked in individual portions when it was ordered. That explains why the abundant seafood morsels had none of that "I've been sitting here overcooking in this soup pot for hours" dried out texture that you sometimes experience with seafood bisques and chowders. I wanted to swim in it.

UD had the Tortellini en Broda (tortellini in broth with fresh veggies) which also inspired, but was not quite as good as my bisque...probably because there was no lobster in it. :p

For a starter, we shared the Melanzana Rollatini (eggplant stuffed with ricotta and mozzeralla finished in a tomato sauce with basil) and it was positively outstanding.  The eggplant was tender and sweet (not a hint of bitterness), oozing with melted cheese and served in a lavish bath of some of the freshest-tasting tomato sauce I've ever enjoyed.

My entree, the Pappardelle Piemontese (prosciutto, wild mushrooms, onions, and peas paired with large egg noodles in an Alfredo sauce topped with parmesan) was the second best pasta dish I've ever eaten in my life (the number one slot goes to Quattro Leoni's Fiochetta with Pears, Asparagus and Taleggio we had in Florence...Italy, not South Carolina...a few years back). Still, this was an unforgettable plate...the sauce was unctuous while somehow managing to evade the thickness or flavor-obliterating cheesiness you find in many Alfredos, and the noodles were creamy, luxurious perfection.  It was amazing...and HUGE.  Honestly, you can easily share an entree at The Laughing Cat and still have leftovers.  Two-thirds of this is in my fridge as I type (and not because I didn't wish I could eat it all there.

UD the "Veal Addict" ordered appropriately and went with the Vitello Saltimbocca Alla Romana (veal scaloppini topped with prosciutto and provolone and sautéed in a white wine sauce).  I almost hate it when I can't find anything to bitch about because I know its boring to read nothing but superlatives, but it was what it was...perfect, like everything else.  Tender, crispy-coated veal swimming around in wine topped with gooey Italian cheese...what's not to love?

It's not like we had room for dessert, but we ordered it anyway...a flourless, fudgy-brownie-like chocolate cake topped with a frosting that was somewhat reminiscent of a very dense chocolate mousse.  Decadent and huge, it was a true chocoholic's delight.

I just can't say enough good things about this $120 meal (which included 3 glasses of wine apiece).  Foil-wrapped butter pats aside, it was sublime.  Service was professional and attentive (the chef even came over to check on us personally a couple of times) and food was easily in the >90th percentile for the Tampa Bay area and generously portioned. We will surely remember this dinner fondly...especially as we polish off the mass quantities of leftovers we brought home with us in the upcoming days.

Laughing Cat on Urbanspoon

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