Okay, I realize that I constantly squawk and make wounded duck sounds about how I hate most Italian restaurants in Tampa...yet, like a moth to a flame, I keep trying them (even though most seem to be channeling Chef Boyardee). Then I bitch some more about my unmet expectations.
I've been on a quest to find the Holy Grail of bona fide Italian in the Tampa Bay area and the recommendation of a fairly obscure establishment (at least according to my grid) has surfaced a couple of times over the past few months. From my former boss. From UD's coworker. From one of his clients. That restaurant is Osteria Natalina. According to the website, "the name 'Osteria' is a term listed in Italy just below the term Trattoria, meaning a bit less fancy and more of a casual feel but still with great homemade food. If you were to list them it would go as such: Restaurant, Trattoria, Osteria, Locanda (from the most fancy and elegant to the least fancy and more casual of the eateries in Italy)." Having dined there, I think the folks at "Osteria" are selling themselves a bit short. I can honestly say that it was one of the top five meals I've ever eaten in Tampa Bay.
First of all, the restaurant is small...incongruously tucked away in the corner of a strip mall. Would I be inclined to stop in if I were just driving by? No. But what a missed opportunity that would be. What this place lacks in size is made up for by its uber-cozy and romantic atmosphere (including soft, piped-in Italian muzak). Lurve!
We were greeted warmly when we arrived and were treated like old friends throughout the course of our meal. The restaurant is family owned and operated, and the sibling sons (I'm guessing, here) of Natalina bent over backwards to ensure that we got exactly what we wanted.
Don't know if you want red or white sauce? Don't know if you want chicken or veal? Have a craving in mind that's not on the menu? Don't be afraid to ask. The willingness these guys have to adapt the menu to suit your palate is absolutely astonishing.
On to the food. The best bread and accoutrement EVER in Florida (maybe in the country) appeared right off the bat. Perfect, warm and crusty Italian loaf slices served with a remarkable olive/garlic/caper tapenade. Really? You're an "osteria" and this much love goes into you bread topper? I've never seen or tasted anything like it.
One of the menu offerings was Four Cheese Pear Pasta Purses (Sacatini) with Walnuts and Gorgonzola Cream Sauce. Best pasta dish I've ever eaten in my life...hands down. First, you will enjoy the creamy mouthfeel of the gorgonzola sauce and perfect al dente pasta. Then the garlic notes, 4-cheesiliciousness, toasted walnutiness and fresh pear fruitiness invade your senses. This shiznit is nothing short of orgasmic. Pardon my French.
We also ordered Black Mussels, which were large, fresh, tender and swimming in a red sauce that was mopped up with our remaining bread at warp speed.
I couldn't decide what I wanted for dinner. After whining a little about wanting seafood and a red sauce while lamenting that a white sauce would also be so nice (and I wouldn't have blamed him if he'd tossed me into the meat grinder at that point), our Natalina Food Guide suggested that a lobster and crab pasta with PINK vodka sauce could be created just for me. Ding. Ding. Ding. More of the ubiquitously perfect pasta appeared, bathed in a lovely creamy (yet still tomato-y) pink sauce and laden with big chunks of shellfish. SO freaking good. We haz a winner!
Underdog selected the "Mixed Grill", which was comprised of a smoky, tender and wonderful filet mignon, a "rope" of amazing fresh Italian sausage and falling-off-the-bone osso bucco. This protein overload was flanked by more of the pasta perfection they crank out at Osteria Natalina topped with tangy and herbaceously fresh tomato sauce. He proclaimed it "the best thing I've ever put in my mouth". Yes, he's a fickle dog who can be emotionally swept away in a foodie moment, but it's still incredibly high praise.
My Limoncello Cake was mind-blowing...and somewhat reminiscent of tres leches cake in its moist-almost-to-the-point-of-being-wet consistency. The intense lemon flavor coupled with the tender texture of this cake make it a "must try" dessert for anyone who loves citrus.
UD ordered the Mini Cannolis, which were off the chain. Crispy pastry shells with creamy ricotta filling, studded with chocolate chips and topped with a lovely dusting of cinnamon sugar. Hold me.
I had to hug the owner after this phenomenal meal.
In a word...Fabulous.