the spot: Il Ritorno 449 Central Avenue St. Petersburg FL 33701
the eats: Bucatini Pomodoro, Short Rib Mezzaluna, Squid Ink Garganelli, Bone Marrow with Yellowtail Tartare, Smoked Meatballs, A5 Japanese Wagyu Beef(seriously)
the bucks: $$$ and worth it. I’d budget $75 a head with wine to do it right. Although to get a nice plate of pasta will set you back $20-$30
the full nelson: a splurge worthy Italian experience that isn’t even that bad of a splurge.
Throughout the entire five season run of Cheap Eats, St. Petersburg FL still stands out as a surprisingly impressive culinary destination. From the moment I got off the plane at Tampa International, any notion of a sleepy Gulf town was washed away. Florida is well populated and flush with tourism dollars, a combination that extends beyond Miami and the Keys. And that means there’s good eats up and down this state.
In February of 2018, I was taken to Il Ritorno by Chef Chris Fernandez from Red Mesa Cantina. Back then, as in now, I remain simply blown away by the food. Not gonna lie either, I got the star treatment. When Chef Chris toured me around the restaurants, I met chefs, sampled the fare and it was pretty much all on the house. The cameras probably should have been running for my after hours tour. Maybe that’s why I’ve posted multiple times about my St. Pete adventures beyond what we featured on Cheap Eats.
And here I am about to do it again.
My wife loves a poolside vacation with a view of the beach and St. Pete is a two hour flight from Austin, so it was only a matter of time. With Covid-19 easing up, we cashed in some airline points to make a quick domestic beach vacay. We stayed at a great hotel called Treasure Island Beach Resort, a 10 minute drive from downtown St. Pete.
PS – get the bloody mary at Treasure Island + the wings were respectable for poolside fare.
My kid is a freak for carbs. That kinda comes off sounding insensitive but seriously, he could eat steamed dumplings, ramen and pasta all day. Even though Il Ritorno is a bit more formal than what he is accustomed too, I had to take him to try Chef David Benstock’s cooking. Previously I had a pasta dish he made for the James Beard house and it was simply epic. So much so that I submitted it for an episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate. Let’s just say the nominee list is about to get a little more crowded.
“This is something from the kitchen” is music to my ears. It’s more than a comp, it’s showing off but in the best of ways. The rundown here: Crispy Polenta with A5 Wagyu Tartare and Osetra Caviar. If that doesn’t cause your jaw to drop, google the prices on A5 Wagyu and Osetra Caviar. Sure one could argue whether anything is worth all that cheddar but I’ve eaten a lotta cheddar in my day and Wagyu + Osetra is way better. See what I did there?
I had the smoked meatballs back in 2018 and with my kid in tow, they were definitely making a return. These meatballs were downright smokey and rich thanks to the smoked tomato sauce and Piave, an Italian Cow’s milk cheese. You could make a meal out of this, some charcuterie and wine. But we had bigger fish to fry.
Bone marrow is everywhere these days. I swear people who I know swore off beef will order it for the sake of ordering it. It’s easy to see why. This rustic dish has a primal like draw yer few homecooks would dare make it, me included. This, however, is not your average Bone Marrow dish.
Named “Monti e Mare” which translates to Mountain and Sea, the roasted bone marrow is filled with Yellowtail Amberjack tartare. This combination might sound unusual but the two proteins go together like turkey and bacon on a club sandwich. Watermelon radish makes it very Instagrammable as well(insert eye roll emoji). Hey, if trends are tasty, I’m down.
On to the pastas. As soon as I mentioned that I was going to Il Ritorno everyone and the magic 8 ball said “get the Short Rib Mezzaluna”. Such is the way of dishes that seem to pack on one level of indulgence after another. Mezzaluna, the halfmoon shaped pasta(similar to ravioli) is stuffed with braised beef short rib and more of that Piave from the smoked meatball starter. Speaking of sauce, let’s talk about the Truffle Fonduta. This fondue like sauce features Fontina cheese, lots of Parmesan and reduced tomato.
It goes without saying that this is a dish to share. But we had more sharing to do.
I have a very difficult time not ordering anything with squid ink or lobster. This has both. Garganelli pasta is made with Squid Ink and studded studded with lobster and bottarga, with a sauce that features orange and fennel. The proteins give the dish an intense taste of the sea, especially the bottarga which is a cured mullet roe, and a global delicacy that happens to be native to the waters of the area. The sauce gave the dish a surprisingly sweet taste though not overly so
Still that sweet kick caught me off guard. I found it a little distracting. But I’m glad to have tried it as it seemed something ambitious to add. As the dinner would go on, I found the perfect compliment for that bite of pasta but more on that in a sec.
Call me a simpleton, a Neanderthal, an absolute culinary novice but this was far and away my favorite pasta dish. Ordered for the kiddo in an attempt to play it safe; simplicity would win the day. They say pasta shapes are meant to be paired with sauces. I can’t say why firm al dente bucatini went so well with this Pomodoro sauce but my God, was this so magnificently satisfying.
Never sleep on the power of burrata cheese either. Once you pierce the outer Mozzarella exterior, soft cheese curds instantly add cream to the tomato sauce. Rich and tangy, familiar yet with execution so perfect, the experience is more Unicorn sighting than our Kid friendly intentions would lead us to believe. I’ll steal one from Action Bronson: F*** that’s delicious.
So this is the part of the story that’s just gonna come off as unfair. This is when the meal matches my honeymoon feast of 2008 ate when I ate back to back meals at Bartolotta and at Top Chef Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak in Las Vegas. Over the course of two dinners I had A5 Kobe beef from Japan(Craftsteak) and superb Italian food(Barlotta). Those meals together cost about a month’s rent. And I would emulate the experience again at Il Ritorno, in one single meal for a fraction of the price.
“Something from the kitchen” was heard once again. This time it would be A5 Wagyu Ribeye steak from Hokkaido and A5 Wagyu strip from Okinawa. Real deal melt in your mouth, break out the black AMEX beef. A little goes a long way both on the palate and the bill. Yes, it was comped. Yes I freaking died at how it good it was.
Note the black and blue sear. Yeah, that’s the way to play it. Also note the pretty dots of yellow and green. That’s a Meyer lemon citronette and a green garlic emulsion. I traded off bites of the steak with bites of that squid ink Garganelli, a surf and turf of epic proportions that renewed my interest in the Garganelli and made me appreciate that slight sweet kick, the orange in particular.
Look, I realize this kind of experience is a far departure from my M.O. but all of this added up to about $200(before tip) which also included a bottle of wine, two glasses of Sparkling wine and a Vanilla gelato. Yes, the Wagyu Amuse Bouche was comped as was the steak, but they were tasting size portions. When the dust settles, this kind of experience is never cheap. But for the sheer level of cooking and ingredients, Il Ritorno is a reasonable splurge.
Additional props to the wine list as well. We had a bottle of wine for $45 which is pretty reasonable for a restaurant of this caliber. There was maybe 50 bottles on the list and 10 of them were priced around $50 or less, again pretty fair given the fact that real deal caviar and Wagyu beef is part of the Il Ritorno playbook.
Three years later and I’m still impressed. If you’re in St. Pete and love Italian food, I’d put this on the list.