Tampa's Maggiano’s is a mixed bag of Mama's manna

For starters, stick with salads.

By Mary D. Scourtes

Maggiano’s Little Italy resembles your dining room if checkered linens, dark woods and Uncle Guido’s pictures frame its walls. Fat-cat, Italian platters are passed at tables in the restaurant-row wing of Westshore Mall.

But if your mother is from Italy and makes unbelievable Saltimbocca or cannelloni, this isn’t your place. This is more an American-Italian pasta or piccata party place for celebrating graduations, anniversaries and  birthdays. Maggiano’s can be as crowed and clamorous as Rome during rush hour, with enough chatter and boisterous diners to be a distraction, even more so as clanging dishes  jar the senses. Normal portions are not to be expected. Unless you are a linebacker, you may need to cut yourself off, as steaks weight in at a pound while pasta tips scales over 24 ounces.

Cheesecake, caramelized bananas, Vera’s lemon cookies and chocolate cake sweeten the palate.

Stick with salads for starters: Chicken and tomatoes team with romaine while prosciutto bits and blue cheese flavor a chopped salad. Apple cider dressing adorns a spinach salad sprinkled with gorgonzola, pine nuts and bacon. Too bad the zucchini fritti, heightened with a lemon aioli, was left in the fryer too long.

Mom’s lasagna bears memorable portions of spicy sausage and gooey cheese. Beef Tenderloin Medallions are rich with a Balsamic cream sauce, garnished by a confetti of onion straws. Dishes that are several notches less exciting are a heavy eggplant Parmigiana and slightly dry roasted chicken. However, the modern crusty bread, which you dip in olive oil, made me wish I had a separate doggie bag for it.

Dessert seems a superfluous thought after a Maggiono’s dinner, but the Roman holiday continues with  mousse-filled chocolate cake, apple crostada, cheesecake, lemon cookies, and caramelized bananas paired with toasted pound cake.

Our wait staff was uniformly attentive. Everyone leaves with a take-home bag and waiters don’t treat takeaway as an insult. Bravo.

Maggiano’s Little Italy
Find it: 203 WestShore Plaza, Tampa
Way to pay: AE, MC, V, Discover
Hours: Sun: noon-10 pm, Mon. – Thur, 11 a.m.-10 p.m., F – S 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Full bar
Reservations: (813) 288-9000
http://www.maggianos.com

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So long, Tom: Know who knew his food? Veteran Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen (1923-2011). He wrote tasty columns, including ”The Morning After,”  “Breakfast Bonus” and “Hey, Tom!” for about 150 years. At least it seemed that long.  I always loved his romance with breakfast:

“Over your chilled half Lakeland pink grapefruit, slices of fresh mango and papaya (try it, you’ll love it), two over very light eggs in butter, three links of Jimmy Dean sausage, slowly cooked in frying pan with drops of water, two oven-baked frozen biscuits buttered and with guava jelly, glass of cold milk, then cup of Bolivian coffee.”

OK, so none of my fellow food writers ever felt threatened by his culinary recitations. But nobody chronicled the Gators and other sports like my friend Tom. He called me by my last name, always turning a two syllable name into one long twill, then shared his superb stories about Tampa, travel, and the tenacious people he knew. Oh the tales he told. I’ll miss you, Tom. Read more

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Cedar Key’s clam chowder rocks: Tony’s Seafood Restaurant in Cedar Key is worth a drive. Named the world’s best clam chowder, Tony  took the crown at the 30th Annual Knorr Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, R.I. last weekend. His third win, Tony’s recipe goes into the chowder hall of fame. For  more about Tony’s achievement, click here.

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Gulfport has best eats: I always find a way to detour to Backfin Blue Cafe for the delightful corn and crab chowder when I’m near Gulfport. This funky, friendly cafe showcases crab, as owner-chef Harold Russell cooks about 150 pounds a week. The jumbo lump crab cakes are the real McCoy. Others agree: Rand McNally’s “Best of the Road” competition gave a nod to Gulfport as a finalist in the “Best for Food” category. The Pinellas beach town has Peg’s Cantina, which brews its own beer, Pia’s Trattoria, for pasta and paninis,  O’Maddy’s Bar and Grille, and  Smokin’ J’s Texas style barbecue. All are hopping spots. Read more.

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