|The Dueling Logos|
When we moved to Tampa in '07, Ciccio's in New Tampa was a colorful little restaurant specializing in health-conscious stir-fry dishes, sushi and wraps. Despite including pizza and several Italian entrees, they dubbed the theme "California cuisine." The decor was bright and cheerful, with a neat aquamarine-colored bar, and blue-green hues conveying a Pacific-coast mood. A couple of years ago, they moved the restaurant into a larger space in the same Publix-anchored shopping center, threw in menu items from their Lodge restaurant in South Tampa and revamped the design, which curiously fails to reflect either concept.
Walk past the outdoor patio and into the restaurant, where a giant square of a bar greets you in all its big-screen-TV glory. White-vinyl booths flank a wall to the left, and as you move farther inside, you reach an adjacent dining area with additional booths and tables. Gone are the bright California colors, replaced by a bit of dark-brown wood and crazy-looking red chandeliers, a meager and odd attempt to incorporate a lodge look.
I don't pretend to know anything about design, but it is unlike any lodge atmosphere I've encountered. Aren't lodges supposed to be cozy, with wooden beams, stone fireplaces and stuff like moose heads mounted on the walls? This looks as if a couple of food guys axed the designer from the expansion budget and threw the place together themselves. It's like a minimalistic bachelor pad in restaurant form.
The "Tennessee Puzzler" agrees. That's my big sister, who was in town a few weeks ago, fresh off a jigsaw marathon with "The Oldsters," a.k.a., my parents. She breezed into Tampa from Ft. Lauderdale on a lovely evening, so we decided to walk to Ciccio's Lodge for dinner.
Before retiring to a life of gardening and crossword puzzles in Hixson, Tenn., the Puzzler taught school here for many years and recalls delicious brunches at Ciccio's. She was puzzled, shall we say, by this latest endeavor. Unlike moi, Tennessee Puzzler has a talent for interior design and she described this restaurant as "cold and institutional."
Now that you've got the picture, I'll move on to the food. Although it lacks any extraordinary characteristics, Ciccio's cuisine is consistently satisfactory and tonight was no exception. We ordered TV dinners. An imaginative idea, Ciccio's Lodge's TV dinners combine an entree and two sides on one sectioned plate, as well as dessert, plated separately. Sides run the gamut from sauteed spinach and tater tots to turkey chili and bread pudding, with a dozen or more choices thrown in for good measure. Portions are reasonable, especially well-suited for a normal appetite. Priced at $11, they were a significant value.
I had Black and White Sesame Crusted Tuna, Sticky Rice with Black Sesame Seeds, and a green salad. The tuna was delightful, nicely seared on the outside and bright pink in the middle; the brown rice clung together appropriately and contained a sprinkle of black sesame seeds; and the salad, mostly lettuce, was boring but dressed well in a sharp balsamic vinaigrette. Dessert was Tiramisu, which was a passable sweet finish to the meal.
The Puzzler had a Mediterranean Wrap, a vegetarian concoction of hummus, feta cheese, black olives, tomato and lettuce. From the varied list of accompaniments, she choose sweet potato fries, cucumber salad and sauteed spinach. The sides are up to you; if you don't feel like including a dessert, as Puzzler did not, simply substitute another savory side. She especially liked the wrap and fries.
The old Ciccio's menu remains intact, including salads, wraps, stir-fry dishes, California bowls, sushi, pizza and pasta; and I assume the Lodge entered the scene with burgers, sliders and TV dinners.
Servers are mostly college kids and ours was attentive and friendly.
Speaking of youth, Ciccio's Lodge actually took over the space once occupied by The Lime, the owners' other restaurant in this center, which offered Mexican fare and attracted more of a drinking crowd. Bar business at Ciccio's Lodge seems busy; they offer nightly promotions and live entertainment on the weekend. The restaurant also resurrected Sunday brunch.
Surely, it's no coincidence that all of these changes occurred when the economy tanked. Restaurants were under the gun to get people in the door, which could explain why the vision here appears blurred, as if the partners threw ideas against a wall to see what would stick, and they didn't want to invest too much while doing it. The logo speaks volumes.
Verdict: Reliable neighborhood bite. Bleak atmosphere.
16023 Tampa Palms Boulevard W.