I subscribed to the Zagat Report before moving to Tampa, but I didn't see the point in renewing my online subscription when so few restaurants here managed to achieve over-the-top ratings. Among the select few garnering high scores when I canceled my subscription three years ago were Armani's, Pelagio Trattoria and Pane Rustica. We went to Armani's for our anniversary in '07 and it didn't disappoint, but when you drop a whopping $400 on dinner, it better not. Alas, those were pre-recession days. Notice the reviews you see here are for restaurants in the affordable range. Sadly, I have never made it to Pelagio Trattoria and now the acclaimed chef is moving on to the Four Seasons in St. Louis. That leaves Pane Rustica (pronounced pahn-ay roos-ti-ka).
The first time I visited this South Tampa strip-center eatery was a few years ago, when a friend and I met for breakfast. Unbeknownst to me when I suggested the place, it doesn't serve a full breakfast but offers coffee drinks and baked goods. Two other times when I would have popped in, it was closed. Guess those were Mondays. Finally, a couple weeks ago when I stopped by for lunch, my timing was right. The place was packed at 1:30, as I stepped up to the counter to see what was what.
Pane Rustica has changed in the last three years. Yes, there is still the place-your-order and pay-at-the-register counter service; displays of pastries, cupcakes, cookies, and croissants; and bread racks beckoning you to tote a loaf home. But now there is an additional area of the restaurant, complete with a circular bar surrounded by booths and tables. They have expanded.
I had heard good things about the dinner menu but always thought it strange that one would order a $20 entree at a counter. Now the place gives you a choice. Half the space - the expansion side - is table service, and the original half remains counter service. Since there isn't a hostess, it's not clear what to do when you first walk in. I was the only confused person around so I figure it attracts a crowd of South Tampa regulars and business folks.
I pretended to know what I was doing and joined the line, surveying the pretty pastries and prepared pizzas. After glancing at the chalkboard specials, I mulled over a paper menu that I picked up off the counter. I remembered from my continental breakfast and the previous Zagat review that the bread is outstanding. A sandwich was my inevitable selection. I ordered the roasted vegetable sandwich, chose my weapon of choice in the bread department - rustic Italian - and told the woman at the register that, yes, I would like my sandwich to be hot. She mentioned that it is usually served cold and she offered to make it to my liking. Nice.
I plopped myself down on a long cushioned bench with tables dotted in front of it. The tables are a bit tight along the bench, so choose another location if you are saying anything top secret or if you like additional personal space. On the counter-service side, where I was, you prop a sign on the table to signal to the runner which order is yours.
My sandwich arrived hot and gorgeous, accompanied by roasted red potatoes, which are served cold. I can't get excited about roasted potatoes since I make them all the time, but the sandwich was spectacular. I savored every mouthful of eggplant, red pepper, zucchini and herbed goat cheese, warmed beautifully on the best bread I have eaten this side of Bread Garden in Atlanta. The sandwich was dressed with a basil aioli that totally completed the superb confluence of flavors.
The bustling atmosphere is conducive to dining alone, which I normally avoid like the plague. But I didn't mind it here, and when I remarked to the man next to me how delicious the food was, he said he dines there at least three times a week. Armed with that knowledge, I wasn't about to let him go back to his novel. He raved about everything, especially the pizza. He also indicated a dish popular with the lunchtime crowd is chicken salad cradled in an acorn squash. Intriguing. Sounds like I'll be back this fall.
I told him I was surprised that no one was tipping the food runners, who happily checked on me and refilled my refreshing raspberry tea, offering to put it in a to-go cup since I was leaving. He said patrons tip at the counter, which I always do anyway when I see a tip jar, and the employees split the pot. On my way out, I threw in some additional "bread" of my own and bought a loaf of "pane rustica" (rustic bread) to take home.
Because I like to visit a restaurant a couple times before I start blogging about it, I returned yesterday with Hubmeister, who was primed to emerge from his dining-out doldrums. I grabbed a raspberry tea at the counter and a table at 11:45. By noon, the place was filling up fast. Seated on the table-service side this time, I noted laminated menus and a printout of specials placed on each table. A couple of women were seated at the bar and the bartender was waiting tables. Since you've now got the lay of the land, I'll cut to the food.
We ordered off the specials menu, which included a wide assortment of innovative salads, sandwiches and entrees. One entree was called "Shut up and eat! Don't ask, you'll love it!" and I was tempted by the mystery, but I ordered the Marsala-grilled portobello mushroom topped with tomatoes, arugula and grilled red onions. The douse of flavorful Gorgonzola and herb aioli convinced me that careful attention to sauces and spreads - not to mention the bread - are helping set this place apart. My rustic Italian bread was toasty and buttery. The ho-hum cold roasted potatoes and an olive came alongside the sandwich.
Hubmeister ordered an entree described as pear and cheese fiocchi, blackened chicken, cranberries, shallots, arugula, toasted garlic and Madeira brown butter. This selection shot him out of the recesses of the dining trenches. He didn't converse much at this meal, except for raving about his lunch, as he gorged himself with his newfound friend - fiocchi. He showed his love for me, however, by parting with some of that fiocchi and chicken.
Fiocchi, which was completely foreign to me, are cute little ruffly pouches of pasta. These contained ricotta and some other cheeses that imparted a sweetness from the pear. In contrast, the blackened chicken was salty and spicy. The fiocchi and chicken were served atop arugula swimming in a sinful pool of brown butter, cranberries, shallots and slices of toasted garlic. The roll, at the top of the photo, came in handy for sopping it all up. All I can say is, "Wow!" This was 12 bucks well spent. FYI, my sandwich was $9. Our total bill for this stellar meal, including tax and tip, was around $30.
Not one to pass up phenomenal crispy-crust breads - there are nine or 10 varieties from which to choose - I bought a loaf to go and a croissant for the teenager at school. Unfortunately for him, he waited too long to eat it and, winning no mother-of-the-year award for this gluttonous act, I confess I just ate it. Could you pass up a flaky croissant, knowing it was filled with almond pastry cream? (I'll get him another one.)
In my experience, Zagat is pretty reliable when it comes to rating restaurants. In this case, it was spot on. With any luck, Tampa's culinary world will expand and more restaurants will warrant outstanding Zagat ratings. Maybe I'll renew my subscription after all.
Pane Rustica Bakery & Cafe
3225 South MacDill Avenue, Suite 119