As the sun rises in the eastern sky, Pane Rustica (pronounced PAHN-ay ROOS-ti-ka) is a European-style bread bakery. When the earth’s star is overhead and blazing heat down upon Tampa’s boulevards, Pane Rustica is a gourmet salad, soup and sandwich shop. And, as the sun finally moves toward the horizon to dip below the Gulf and set the clouds aglow, PR morphs into a bar and fine dining establishment. When you pull into the unassuming Palma Ceia Village strip mall off S. MacDill Avenue you have no idea what’s in store, much less that this whirlwind of culinary multitasking all takes place in the same modest location.
Once seated inside for dinner, I’m reminded a bit of an Italian trattoria or a French brasserie. The vibe is casual, the bar is loud, but the open kitchen is deadly serious. The left side of the menu features daily specials and the right side focuses on stalwarts proven over time. But as you’re perusing, out comes a half loaf of crusty artisanal bread and a tangy homemade hummus island swimming in a shallow pool of fruity olive oil. It is delicious; but be careful not to get carried away. Many gastronomic delights await and the portions are ample.
The dinner offerings to start are split among salads, small plates, and flatbreads. We decide to try one of each — a tough choice amidst many interesting options. The salad of fresh watermelon cubes and peppery arugula features chunks of feta cheese, crisp cucumber, crunchy Spanish Marcona almonds (the nut of the moment), garden mint and briny Kalamata olives. It’s a lovely combination, but unfortunately there’s a heavy hand with the lemon-sherry vinaigrette that throws the salad out of balance. In this case, the dressing should be a grace note instead of hogging center stage, a perfect example of “less is more.” This is not iceberg lettuce that provides crunch but demands blue cheese and bacon for flavor. This is arugula, baby! They don’t call it
“rocket” in England for nothing.
Flatbreads are popular and many restaurants are featuring them with toppings in creative combinations to enjoy. But I like to order the classic Margherita because when you strip it down to the simplicity of just mozzarella, tomato, and basil, there’s nowhere for the kitchen to hide. Each element must sing and work with the others in a synchronous whole. Nailing the wood-fired crust is difficult; thin enough to be crisp, but not so thin that it gets soggy. PR’s ingredients are impeccable, but the crust collapses under the weight of the fresh local cheese. For me, that’s a deal-breaker.
However, I’m willing to forgive because everything else that subsequently comes from the kitchen is absolutely sensational. The “small plate” butternut walnut ravioli sits on a tangle of sautéed watercress topped with diced sweet dried figs, prunes and some crunchy toasted walnuts, all bathed in a subtle lavender brown butter to tie it together. The delicious flavor combo is just a hint of the riches still in store as our entrees arrive.
Dishes don’t come quickly out of the open kitchen, because most are cooked “à la minute,” or in the moment. But don’t worry, they are worthy of your patience. The fork-tender boneless beef short rib is braised in wine and sits proudly atop a creamy root vegetable purée. Perfect grilled asparagus, caramelized cipollini onions, and a sumptuous mushroom herb pan jus complete the plate.
If you’ve ever watched Gordon Ramsay yell at his chefs on Hell’s Kitchen, you know that pan-seared jumbo sea scallops are fraught with peril. It takes a pro to get the perfect caramelization without turning the seafood into a hockey puck. When they’re done right, as they are here, they are a joy to behold and even better to eat. This is especially true when accompanied by PR’s crisp snap pea shoots, rendered chorizo, creamy corn fondue and, in a burst of inspired whimsy, homemade potato chip “coins” the size of a roll of quarters tumbled in the center of the plate. Just scrumptious.
I rarely order chicken when I’m out because it’s usually boring. The surprise of the night, however, is the oven roasted supreme, i.e. a boneless breast with the wing joint still attached. It’s roasted to perfection with crispy skin, yet still juicy and bursting with flavor, as is the rapini touched with garlic and glistening grilled shiitake mushrooms. But what sends this choice over the top are the porcini and truffle cappellacci, a cousin to ravioli coated with rosemary infused poultry stock reduction. It’s a triumph about which I’m still dreaming.
For dessert, PR offers a choice of creamy gelato and a version of the ubiquitous flourless chocolate cake. We opt for two fruit-based sweets. The first is “summer cake,” a moist blueberry-peach combo similar to pound cake with a fruity berry compote topped with house-made frozen zabaglione. Then there’s a pie-like apple dish with puff pastry, topped with seductive vanilla bean gelato and a honey drizzle. The apples still retain some bite and the pastry isn’t warm as advertised (much to my dining companion’s dismay), but I loved this dessert, so it’s about personal preference.
Regardless of where the sun is in its daily trek across the sky, Pane Rustica is ready to stave off the gods of hunger in most delightful ways.
Pane Rustica, 3225 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa, 813-902-8828, panerusticabakery.com. Appetizers $6-$14, entrees $14-$26, desserts $6-$7, wines by the glass $7-$16.