Donatello endures while others come and go
BY ROMMIE JOHNSON
The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA » With a pool of rich, decadent bone marrow awaiting its arrival, our veal shank doesn’t so much fall off the bone as dive. Forget the knife. A delicate twist of the fork pulls away a tender piece of the succulent, slow-braised meat for a quick dip before it hits our mouths. Soundless gasps ensue. Glances of disbelief are exchanged. If words didn’t fail us, the conversation would go something like this: “We’re not in Milan, and we don’t care.” The ossobuco at Donatello may be the finest we’ve ever tasted.
These days, of course, bone marrow is all the rage, but Donatello has been doing this for decades. This venerable Italian restaurant isn’t hip or trendy. You won’t find brown butter gnudi, foie gras ravioli or truffled anything on the menu. But there’s a reason it has been a Tampa institution for 26 years.
It all starts with inviting ambience and crack professional service. Walk through the door and there’s a good chance owners Guido and Gino Tiozzo will greet you with a warm handshake and a friendly smile. The foyer opens into an expansive, dimly lit dining room with stucco arches and gold-leaf ceiling tiles. The restaurant’s signature roses — a prize for ladies at the end of the evening — grace every table. Once seated, a meal unfolds as artfully as the restaurant’s name implies, with tuxedoed servers attending to every detail or whim with grace and precision.
Naturally, all of this elegance comes at a cost. Dinner for two with appetizers, dessert and wine can easily top $150.
Fortunately, the kitchen is up to the task. The menu focuses on traditional Italian dishes with an emphasis on Northern recipes, such as local grouper prepared Livornese-style, veal scaloppini sauteed with prosciutto and Fontina, and a rack of lamb with mustard and herb breadcrumbs and a rosemary demi-glace.
Our meal began with one hot and one cold appetizer. From the antipasti freddi side, we sampled the Carpaccio di Filetto, thinly sliced raw beef tenderloin served with shaved Parmesan, chopped onions, fresh capers and a squeeze of lemon juice. It was every bit as delicious as it was simple. From the caldi side, we ordered the Lumache Farcite, snails baked in mushroom caps with parsley and a delicate garlic butter that didn’t overpower the flavor of the wonderfully textured mollusks.
Already loosening our belts, we pushed forward with an entree from the night’s specials: Chilean sea bass baked in a champagne butter sauce with bits of lobster and asparagus. If we have a nitpick at all, it’s that the subtlety of the fish got lost amid the bold flavors of our other dishes. That said, it was perfectly cooked, the fillet moist with a pleasantly firm texture. Nice, but then there was the ossobuco.
Have we mentioned the ossobuco? Oh, good. Because if we think about it again, we may need a moment to compose ourselves.
On a previous visit, we were nearly as impressed with the Medaglioni di Manzo alla Pizzaiola, a pair of 7-ounce melt-in-your-mouth medallions of beef tenderloin served Neapolitan-style with a sweetly fragrant garlic, tomato and oregano sauce.
It would be a sin to visit Donatello without trying the homemade pastas, including the Cannelloni Donatello, stuffed with veal and mozzarella and then glazed with a bechamel and tomato sauce, and the Tortellini Aurora, filled with sausage, ham and cheese in tomato sauce with a touch of cream.
The wine list is extensive, if a bit overpriced, including a superb selection of Italian varietals and Super Tuscans.
If it’s possible to save room for dessert, you can’t go wrong with the traditional tiramisu or a chocolate mousse cake with strawberry coulis. Otherwise, retire to the lounge to sip some grappa and listen to the smooth vocal phrasing of jazz pianist Kitty Daniels.
Located in an unassuming windowless building along a busy stretch of road, Donatello has been around for so long, the place has nearly faded into the scenery — which may explain why we hadn’t reviewed it since 1993. Don’t repeat our mistake. This is a classic and classy dining experience that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Tribune reviewers eat anonymously. Rommie Johnson can be reached at (813) 259-7426.