Italians take their food very seriously and their main meal - "il pranzo" - is taken at lunch time. It begins with antipasti, followed by "il primo," consisting of pasta or minestrone, and is followed by "il secondo," or main course, consisting of meat or fish. Dessert and fruit are next, and finally, of course, there's coffee.
While US diners may not opt for all of these courses, there's no doubt that the love of Italian cuisine is alive and well on these shores - especially in the many bistros, trattorias and restaurants you'll find in this area.
Some are old, some are new but there are some you shouldn't miss, such as Pia's Trattoria, where you'll not only get delicious fare, you'll be treated to ambiance too. Gigi's Italian Restaurant on St Pete Beach offers no frills, but it showcases truly tasty cuisine.
For an exceptional experience, along with a delicious "shop op," be sure to visit Mazarro's Italian Market where you can spend hours poring over the tasty fresh food, baked goods, wines, olive oil and much more - before settling down for a nice lunch on their pretty patio.
Villa Gallace and Alfano's lead the list of "old" favorites, but don't overlook newcomers Sea Guini and Il Ritorno.
Mazzaro's Italian Market
Imagine a place where you can explore aisles lined with fine cheeses, crusty, brick-oven-baked breads, wines, finely roasted coffees and select fresh seafood, meats and handmade pastas. You'll find this - and more - at this family-style market. There's even a special cheese room with more than 300 selections from around the world. While you're there, you might as well pick up lunch from their lengthy menu selection featuring soups, salads and hot or cold sandwiches. A charming hidden patio offers the perfect place in which to savor the delicacies you purchased while you kick back and enjoy la dolce vita ambiance. (727-321-2400)
If burgers with a Tuscan twist, savory antipasti, pizzas and pasta - combined with a view of Tampa Bay appeal to you, then you've come to the right place. Pizzas, flatbreads and calzones cooked in a Woodstone oven, European- style outdoor seating and excellent service are just an added bonus. Open since 2005, this hometown trattoria has been pleasing locals and tourists alike with an array of American, as well as Italian favorites. From soups, salads, pastas, seafood and meats, you're sure to find a winner. For dessert, indulge in the creamy, classic gelato or the tasty, traditional tiramisu. An extensive wine list and signature drinks complement the experience. (727-895-5515)
The recently opened Opal Sands Resort is home to Sea-Guini, the sea-inspired in-house restaurant offering Italian-influenced cuisine along with stunning views of the Gulf of Mexico. Both lunch and dinner menus feature savory selections starting with antipasti, bruschetta and a selection of pizzas and salads. As you would expect, the dinner menu highlights more substantial offerings such as meat, chicken and seafood - in addition to signature pastas such as penne alla vodka - homemade penne tossed in a creamy tomato cream sauce, with fresh broccolini, sweet fennel sausage and heirloom tomatoes, topped off with imported buffalo mozzarella. An ample wine list and artisanal cocktails are also offered.
Palm Court Italian Grill
Located in the Island Grand Resort, this intimate bistro is a favorite, not only for of its fine food but because of its location inside one of the area's premier resorts. Consistently ranked as one of the best restaurants on St Pete Beach, the Italian food options aren't too shabby, either! Lunch features antipasti, salads, soups, and paninis as well as a plethora of pasta options. When night falls, the bistro becomes a romantic scene with outdoor candlelit dinners under the stars and the menu is augmented with seafood and meat choices - complemented by fine wines to accompany every course. Delicious, decadent desserts, of course add the perfect finale. (727-367-6461)
Conveniently located in downtown St Petersburg just steps from some of the city's stellar attractions, Il Ritorno has been offering discerning foodies a new twist to Italian fare since 2014. The food is not only delicious, it's pleasing to the eyes, garnering this bistro a spot on Tampa Bay Times' "Top 10 Restaurants in Tampa Bay." Drawing on his philosophy that, "food should be fresh, exciting, textural and an all-around memorable experience for everyone," owner-Chef David Benstock has created a very appealing menu, always highlighting seasonal ingredients. Menus are printed daily with unique selections offering a host of fresh choices from antipasti (people rave about the octopus Puttanesca), pancetta spiced duck breast and much more. A current - and refreshing - palate pleaser is the cold squash soup. Open for dinner only.
Since 1984 this cozy bistro has been pleasing clients with classic Italian cuisine. The family-owned restaurant boasts a wide range of dishes, sure to satisfy every craving. The lunch and dinner menus offer options ranging from basics such as Italian wedding soup, spinach pie and paninis to Italian "comfort food" such as manicotti and other pastas smothered in savory sauces. Also available are entrées starring chicken, pork, lamb, shrimp and the like. A "pre-fixe" menu offers a three-course meal at a very reasonable price. A wide selection of wines - honored by "Wine Spectator" - complements an extensive martini selection. Splendido Lounge is the scene of live music several times a week. (727-584-2125)
Known as one of Tampa Bay area's premier Italian restaurants this gem is the brainchild of Pompeo Gallace, who came to the US from Calabria, Italy in 1952. Ample menu offerings showcase the best of Italian cucina, with pasta dishes such as rigatoni Puttanesca and linguine alla pescatore complementing a long list of fish and meat dishes, sure to please the most discerning palate. Decadent desserts and a long wine list offer perfect accompaniments to your meal. The service is excellent and the staff is friendly - even when the restaurant is packed - which tends to happen often because of its reputation with locals and savvy tourists alike.
Classic Italian fare in an elegant atmosphere defines this St Petersburg favorite. Lunch and dinner specials are made with fresh ingredients, crafting Old World Italian flavor into modern-day favorites, courtesy of Italian-born Chef Tony. Choices range from tasty Italian wedding soup, substantial insalatas, paninis, pizzas and zesty pasta dishes to chicken, beef, seafood and more. Rich polished wood floors and chic décor pave the way for an elegant dining experience. The newly implemented Early Dinner Menu, from 4 - 5:30 p.m. (except Sunday) includes soup or salad, a choice of entrée and dessert. This 2014 recipient of the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence Award is a winner seven days a week. (727-623-9037)
Gigi's Italian Restaurant
What began as a love story between 18-year-old Dorothy Pearl Simpson and Vergil Newberne in Haira, Georgia, culminated in the opening - on Dec.1, 1967, of the first Gigi's in Florida in the Pasadena Shopping Center. Since then, the Newberne family has been serving authentic - and delicious Italian fare - in scattered locations throughout the area, though the Pasadena site is no longer in existence. Specialty pizzas lead the list of delicacies, while the lasagna and the chicken Pompeii - marinated and grilled boneless chicken breast, smothered with sautéed onions, topped with Provolone cheese - may just be the best in town.
Set in an Italian-village-like ambiance in charming Gulfport, Pia's lends new meaning to the meaning of Old World charm meets la dolce vita. Freshly made salads, delicious paninis, and a wide array of robust pasta choices draped in savory sauces, combine with tasty chicken, veal and mussel choices to deliver a satisfying dining experience. There is limited indoor seating, which is okay because most of the action takes place on the cozy brick patio. Daily specials are featured along with necessary staples such a variety of fresh antipasti and insalatas and Pia's Pesto Verde, her secret Neapolitan green pesto pasta. No matter what you order, you can't go wrong.
About Michelle da Silva Richmond
Michelle da Silva Richmond is an award-winning travel editor and member of the Society of American Travel Writers and other journalism organizations.
She has written hundreds of articles for newspapers, consumer and trade magazines and in-flight publications. In addition, she has co- authored and contributed to many guide books and was a weekly travel columnist for a metropolitan Connecticut daily newspaper.
Growing up abroad, combined with a colorful career as a Pan Am flight attendant fueled her wanderlust and passion for travel.
She lived in Mexico City for nearly 20 years and has visited nearly 100 countries. Her bags are always packed.
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