Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Deliciously Modern: Pelagia Trattoria

"All of our pasta is made in-house," explained the cordial server. 

Okay, stop right there.  No need to go any further.  Who cares about the salmon?  When I hear homemade pasta, I swoop down on it like a vulture on a dead armadillo. 

That's exactly what I did Saturday night at Pelagia Trattoria, the highly acclaimed restaurant located inside the Renaissance Hotel at International Plaza.  How often do you find a noteworthy restaurant located inside a hotel?  We actually have a couple of them in Tampa, but let's face it, most hotel restaurants are mediocre and people dine at them out of convenience or necessity, not as a final destination. 

Oh, the lucky guests getting room service from Pelagia, or dropping in for a convenient dinner.  What they'll discover are carefully executed Italian dishes and first-rate service.  That's the kind of surprise I like when I travel, but traveling we were not.  We are fortunate to have this fine trattoria right in our back yard.

To my dismay, we comprised one of only a handful of occupied tables on a Saturday night at 7.  This is a crying shame, and I'll tell you why:  the food, service and atmosphere are a top-notch change of pace from the ordinary Tampa offerings.

As we selected a bottle of wine, we munched on crispy bread sticks and a couple of Italian breads that were accompanied by a pate of ground olives, herbs and citrus.  I'm all for shaking up the usual bread-and-butter routine.  My palate was primed.

For appetizers, I kept the olive theme going by ordering crunchy fried olives stuffed with three meats, and Hubmeister selected an oven-dried tomato, goat cheese and pesto-topped garlic baguette.  In the local food world, word has spread about these olives, so I knew they would be on my personal menu.  Salty and crunchy, they are tasty and would be awesome with a cocktail.  

Next time, I'll pair gin with these babies.

I recommend them, especially if you are having drinks at the bar, but I wouldn't pair them with a glass of red wine again.  Olive pate and olive appetizer equal olive overkill.  Amateur mistake on my part.

Hubmeister's appetizer was splendid, with warm, creamy goat cheese acting as a sassy conduit for the basil pesto and tangy tomato.  My blurry photo doesn't do it justice. 

We both ordered Caesar salads.  Have you ever received a present but you didn't have the foggiest idea what it was or what to do with it?  That's how I felt when this salad innovation was served. 

On the left are focaccia croutons preparing for takeoff.
 "Have you ever had one of these before?" the server inquired. 

"Uh, no, how do we eat them?" I asked, as I stared at what the server described as a deconstructed Caesar salad.  

"You can eat it with your hands or just dump it out on the plate and mix it up like a normal Caesar," she offered. 

Oh boy, I love to play with my food.  I was delighted, and Hubmeister was game, too.  This is what going out to dinner is all about.  We separated the warm, slightly oiled and charred baby romaine leaves, rolled up part of the fresh Parmesan, broke off some giant crouton and proceeded to dunk our lettuce wraps into creamy Caesar dressing.  On the menu this dish is called Caesar Fondue.  I have a feeling I will be "fonduing" this again.

Next came the homemade pasta.

Did someone say pumpkin gnocchi?  That would be me.  I had Pumpkin Gnocchi with Barbera Braised Short Rib Ragout.  The server described this as a wintry dish, and that nails it perfectly.  This rustic and homey creation is guaranteed to warm you on a chilly night.  Void of the big globs of fat usually found in short ribs, and chopped in a small dice, the fork-tender rib meat conveyed the intoxicating essence of its red-wine braise and generously encircled pillows of pumpkin-and-potato pasta.  Have no fear of a strong pumpkin flavor.  I couldn't detect the pumpkin at all.  Maybe it lends an underlying sweetness to the dish, which reminded me of a pasta version of roast beef and potatoes - a really good stew, with an incredible gravy. 

Hubmeister had Pappardelle with Traditional Bolognese and Pecorino Cheese.  A rich and meaty sauce accentuated broad ribbons of hefty pasta.  This evoked nods of praise and I had to remind Hubs that he wouldn't be sent to bed early if he didn't clean his plate, but there was no stopping him. 

Bring on dessert!  I couldn't eat another bite, but in the interest of the blog (yep, this is a good excuse) we split the chef's creation for the evening - a lemon cheesecake accompanied by a cherry-lemon sauce.  Except for a novel biscotti crust, the cake itself was a bit dry and unremarkable, but the lemon sorbet that topped it was a pleasant twist and a nice bite for those of us who could barely budge from the lovely environment. 

As with its cuisine, Pelagia is not what one expects in terms of typical Italian restaurant ambiance.  You know the kind I mean, where you half-expect to see Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack emerge from a dark and mysterious private dining room.  No, this space is smart and colorful, artfully lit with rainbows of pendant lights.  Seating is comfortable, though not intimate, but private dining is available.  An open kitchen and adjacent bar span the length of the restaurant.  Because it was slow, the dining room was quiet but I can envision plenty of action and a very different environment on a busy night.  

Also open for breakfast and lunch, Pelagio would be a swank venue for business dining.  Personally, I'm planning a break in my Christmas shopping to sample their pizza.  If shopping proves laborious, I'll be in the lounge with a gin and tonic and fried olives.  You can access the restaurant easily from the mall; it's just outside the food court and you can't miss the hotel.  Valet parking is available and complimentary. 

Restaurant Info:
Pelagia Trattoria
4200 Jim Walter Boulevard

Pelagia Trattoria on Urbanspoon


  1. I'm game for these olives+gin and tonic too!!! Ring my bell, please!! :)