I so wanted to love Stefano's...I was almost in love with it before I met it. Fiocchi is on the menu, for gawd's sake...one of the best pasta dishes on the planet and one I was first introduced to on a trip to Florence several years ago at La Trattoria 4 Leoni, which (somewhat surprisingly) is not that easy to find on Italian restaurant menus in Tampa. I went in expecting a passionate foodgasm and emerged feeling like I'd just kissed my brother.
The place looks like a hole in the wall from the outside, but is eclectically charming and warm on the inside. The works of local artists are on display (and for sale) in the dining room and kitchen utensils are combined with sparkly ornamental balls hanging from the ceiling to create interest. Soft, jazzy muzak added to the romantic and relaxing ambiance. Just a taste:
My starter of Eggplant Parmesan definitely raised my expectations for the rest of the meal. The tender eggplant had been peeled and obviously "sweated" to remove any hint of bitterness. The generous panko-crusted slabs were served hot and crispy, layered with melted mozzarella cheese and drizzled with a fresh-tasting, zesty marinara sauce. It was SO perfect...I could eat this all day.
While I'm on the "good" portion of the meal, plenty of positively fabu Italian bread was presented throughout the course of our dinner in various and appropriate states of toastiness. Service was also attentive, albeit in a family-run resto kinda way.
UD was excited at the lovely sight of his "Steamers" in garlic white wine sauce...but they proved to be a bit tough and flavorless. The broth, however, was so sop-worthy that we easily plowed through our seemingly never-ending supply of bread mopping it up.
The soup of the day (lentil and Italian sausage) was hearty if not a tad bland. Not sure what was missing, but it seemed like something was.
House salads were fresh and crisp, albeit reminiscent of the "bag-o-salads" available at every grocery store. Fresh tomatoes were the only addition to the greens. I did love the zippy, house-made citrus vinaigrette served atop them, however.
Things took a decided turn for the worse when our pasta dishes arrived. Dogboy's seafood and linguini "special" was only okay. "Overcooked" seemed to be the word of the day as the soggy pasta had been boiled well past the al dente state, and both the fish chunks and mussels were dry and tough. Two large shrimp in the dish managed to avoid the fate of the other ingredients. The lobster sauce topping it all was relatively tasteless, but a fra diavolo sauce alternative was also available which might've added more zesty interest.
I was so hyped about the Fiocchi (little pasta purses filled with pear and cheeses) menu option that I chose to forego the appetizer option and make it my main course. My introduction to this dish in Florence (served with asparagus tips) was so mind-blowing I had to order a second bowlful. Almost in a dead heat for awesomeness is the Fiocchi served at Osteria Natalina in South Tampa. Bella's Italian Cafe (south Tampa) has an "also-ran" version with peas that's a decent rendition. The gummy pasta, canned pear taste and bland sauce presented by Stefano's disappointed. Badly.
Dessert was beautiful and tasti-licious, even though ice cream usually fails to thrill me. Who could resist this perfect ball of spumoni enveloped in a hard chocolate shell and served with fresh strawberries and whipped cream? I couldn't keep my fork out of it.
Too few "hits" and too many "misses" will keep me from returning anytime soon, although the place does have potential. Maybe it was off night, or perhaps my palate is still spoiled from a week's worth of snorting pasta on the Amalfi coast less than two months ago. Judge for yourself.
My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.