Music, maestro… A room with a view, And you, And no one to worry us, No one to hurry us through This dream we’ve found.
I’m sure Sir Noel Coward never set foot in Armani’s, given that he died in 1973, but his jaunty 1928 love song could have been written specifically for this wonderful northern Italian restaurant. The million-dollar views of the bay through the floor-to-ceiling windows are enough to make anyone sing. And Sir Noel would most certainly approve of the tinkling grand piano that greets you as you step off the elevator on the 14th floor of the Grand Hyatt.
Even during the winter, when the sun has set by dinnertime, the views are stunning. The whole environment screams deluxe. As you pass the piano on your right, there’s the wine cellar on your left proudly displaying some of the high-end gems from Armani’s wine list, including Dom Perignon offered by the glass.
The crackerjack staff aims to please. On the way to the dining room you’re invited to feast your eyes on the famous antipasto bar. You then get whisked to a comfortable table topped with crisp white linens that reflects Armani’s relaxed sense of modern comfort. Next your server arrives with a loaf of chewy warm focaccia and a tasty white bean dip drizzled with fruity olive oil and sprinkled with fresh thyme.
I’ve enjoyed Armani’s on several occasions prior to becoming a food critic and was never much interested in the antipasto misto. However, duty calls. I opt to save $4 and let the chef choose from the 30+ selections.
Boy, am I surprised. There is absolutely no other way to begin your Armani’s meal — it is Fabulous, with a capital “F.” There are balsamic glazed meatballs, clams with sambucca vinaigrette, fresh hearts of palm with citrus dressing, a sampling of fine Italian cheeses (one with truffles) and cured meats, baby squid, shrimp, perfect grilled asparagus and carrots, and earthy cubes of roasted golden beets. There are more flavors on the plate than you can shake a breadstick at.
That king of salads, insalata di Cesare, often strays from its origins and ends up a pale, uninspired imitation that has diners responding, “Why bother?” Fortunately, Armani’s version is terrific; it’s prepared to order at the Caesar salad station with crisp romaine, salty anchovies, shaved aged Parmesan, crunchy garlic croutons and an authentic piquant dressing that is full of zest.
With a northern Italian focus, the menu isn’t overloaded with pasta and marinara sauce. But the cannelloni di vitello stuffs a long round pasta tube with a light, but flavor-packed, filling of ground veal, spinach, Parmesan and ricotta and serves it with an aromatic tomato cream sauce.
Carbonara dei dettini e del gambero con pappardelle features juicy sautéed jumbo shrimp and huge fresh sea scallops tossed with broad pappardelle pasta swimming in a smoky pancetta cream sauce, and freshly grated, aged Parmesan cheese. If I’m being really picky, there’s no sear on the scallop (which is delicious anyway) and much more cream than pasta, but I’m a sucker for cured pork products and must confess I’m looking at the dish through pancetta-colored glasses.
One of Armani’s signature dishes is classic vitello scalloppini; the sautéed, pounded veal is full of earthy tang. The thin, tender meat sits in a dusky black truffle sauce on a sauté of exotic wild mushrooms atop a creamy mascarpone polenta. A few shaved black truffle slices dot the veal for even more flavor.
Another winning traditional dish is osso buco, a falling-off-the-bone tender, savory braised veal shank with risotto alla Milanese, the creamy al dente rice flavored with saffron that turns the dish a sunny yellow.
Filetto con ragu di manzo highlights a thick, juicy grilled beef filet not content to stand on its own. It’s topped with an intense soft, beef ragout, that contrasts beautifully with aromatic olive tapenade and sweet, roasted squash puree.
The traditional tiramisu and gelato are splendid. The gelato option offers two ample scoops in a variety of delicious creamy flavors served with the contrasting crunch of a crisp, nutty biscotti. The velvety tiramisu has a nice balance of ladyfingers and mascarpone with equal hits of coffee and chocolate. Unfortunately, the roasted pear in sweet vin santo is a train wreck that’s totally ruined by a cinnamon stick bomb that kills all the other flavors.
Too bad; everything else is first class.
Armani’s is not looking to break new ground, but it really delivers on traditional high-end Italian (with a high-end price tag to match). It remains one of Tampa’s best escapes to celebrate with a special meal.
Music, maestro… let’s revisit Sir Noel:
Come with me and leave the noisy crowds, Sunlight shines for us above the clouds. That sounds like a paradise few Could fail to choose.