PALM HARBOR - In a world of $3 iced tea and three-scallop dinners, too many have forgotten that generosity is the soul of hospitality at home or in the industry that bears its name.
Not at Casa Ludovico, Palm Harbor's newest Italian, which Carmine Cervelli runs with an open hand and an expansive spirit.
I don't mean lusty bowls of spaghetti and jugs of vino on red-checked tablecloths, not that there's anything wrong with that. Casa Ludovico is a white tablecloth, black uniform place of refined taste and elevated price. But Cervelli is generous with the good stuff, such as luxury tastes of prosciutto and spunky pink peppercorns. When he arrived almost 10 years ago to open Pulcinella in Clearwater, he was one of the first to brag about porcini mushrooms and to serve them liberally.
In his new place, generosity starts at the beginning, wine in unrestrained pours in big balloons of fine, thin crystal, some of the best glassware I've seen on local tables.
You want lusty, not fussy? The bowl of olive oil for bread is filled with good ripe olives. The antipasto plate is the best in town, with salami, ,beefy bresola, a ball of fresh mozzarella creamier than a latte, Parmesan cheese and a mountain of prosciutto. Melon with that lovely ham, often a dainty appetizer, was more than two could eat without embarrassment. An arugula salad came with more shaved Parmesan than I've seen in a year. (Gorgonzola on a salad, however, seemed dry and of a lower grade.) That's vigorous sensuality, not piggishness. A special of octopus magically grilled to charred lobster richness was all the more delightful because of the free hand in seasoning with lemon juice and dusky pink peppercorns.
And so it goes throughout the meal: big salads, heaping piles of baby clams, husky stuffed chicken breasts. All of it is hidden in plain sight, as plain as it gets in North Pinellas, a sunflower yellow frame wood house that sits alone like the model of a failed subdivision. You'd expect a lacy tearoom inside; instead a rough brick fireplace, photos of old Italy and crisp trimmings make it bustle with style.
If such expansiveness is Italian, Cervelli makes clear that his is of the southern variety. When a bartender, asked her favorite dish, pointed to pasta with mushrooms in a rich cream sauce, the owner interrupted with dismay, "They'll think it's northern Italian. No. Tomatoes, tomatoes. tomatoes; we are from Napoli."
Indeed, tomato sauce rules here, and it is more than the simple ragu, which is thick and robust. The bolognese is ripe red and packed with pork and beef - I had it on housemade pappardelle, food for a gladiator.
In acqua pazzo (the "crazy water" of Mario Battali), tiny tomatoes turn delicate and let the spicier flavors play over a remarkable piece of grouper. It was almost 2 inches thick, bright white, with glistening flakes that made up for all the sins committed against that fish's good name.
The triumphant sauce, however, was from Capri, tomatoes with clams and precious sea urchins that add a lush texture and the punchy taste of the working sea.
The only failure on my table was the squid ink pasta with an ocean of crabmeat and baby clams. Black pasta is not a modern stunt; it's good eating on much of the Italian coast, especially in Venice, but this was dry and dull to me. It should burst with flavor.
If you must eat meat, the filet is big, thick and tender, and comes with a sauce of Barolo and demi-glace as polished as any of the kitchen's tomato endeavors. The drawback is on the side: overcooked broccoli and mushy rosemary potatoes.
Given Ludovico's commitment to traditional Italian cuisine, I'd love more classic contorni, rapini, white beans, favas, greens, fennel, kale and such.
The servers have that uncommon knack of sharing specials and customized assistance in a just-for-you intimacy. The only possible misstep is that servers may be too attentive for some diners, but I found their pacing balanced and companionship pleasing.
Ludovico wins my highest compliment for an Italian restaurant: I can recommend the tiramisu. I was over it 10 years ago, but Ludovico's luscious ladyfingers in whipped cream, mascarpone and bittersweet cocoa showed me I was wrong.
Don't eat it all yourself. Be generous and share.
Tampa Bay Times, Restaurant Review
July 21, 2005
By Chris Sherman