For the second Facebook Foodie Collective outing- where having fun going to restaurants, sampling food, and experiencing delightful conversation is a requirement- we visit Cena, a high-end eatery in the heart of Channelside. Award-winning Executive Michael Buttacavoli has been there since the opening in 2013 and serves up modern Italian cuisine, many times with a unique slant.
Reservations were a snap online (opentable.com) and the request for a table by window was accommodated Cena is a 40 seat restaurant with an abundant number of attentive servers and an atmosphere conducive to conversation. The wine list is flexible but not extensive. Parking can be a challenge in this district that has grown to near capacity since the restaurants opening.
Everything on the antipasti menu sounds delicious. We start with fried artichoke and lemon aioli on a bed of arugula salad and wagyu bresaola (aged, air dried beef) ($14). It’s a beautiful presentation and a delicious bite. Frying artichoke renders them very tender with a crispy outside. Add that peppery kick of the lemon aioli and arugula and blend it with the saltiness from the bresaola and it is a mouthful of good!
Ravioli topped garnished with Sicilian pistachios and ham ($12) does not fare as well. The taste is bland and one of my tablemates says it is too al dente for their liking. It could use some love from garlic and other ingredients to give it more pizzazz.
Crispy eggplant ($12) is next and lands some props from my peeps. The fruit is cut into strips and topped with sweetish tomato marmalade on a base of truffle cheese fonduta (fontina cheese mix). The tables opinion is we could have used a little more cheese sauce to balance the marmalade, but overall we would order it again.
Feeling adventurous, I order Wild Boar that was to be served with sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms. Sadly, our server says that they don’t have it. Nor do they have braised oxtail, also listed on the menu and would have been my second choice. It’s understandable that restaurants run out of dishes including the more edgy stuff, but patrons should be notified when they are given the menu, not after they have made their selections.
My third choice is Puttanesca, a seafood medley of shrimp, scallops, and calamari mixed in a sauce with olives, tomatoes, and capers. Unfortunately, there is a miscommunication and I am delivered shrimp and scallop risotto. The large shrimp are plump and nicely cooked and the scallops are seared to perfection. Long hot peppers and mascarpone cheese make the risotto interesting, but still… disappointed. So, not a great start for entrées.
The Veal chop with prosciutto, mushrooms, parmesan polenta in a marsala reduction ($28) is a bright light. This huge chop topped with those mushrooms is savory and succulent, and the polenta base mixed with the reduction is is reminiscent of old-school gravy with a punch. It is a creamy smooth finish.
Cacio e Pepe with guanciale (cured pork cheek)($28) is the star of the show. It’s a simple pasta prepared with black pepper, butter and pecorino romano. Bucatini pasta (thick spaghetti-like pasta with a hole running through the center) is the perfect pick for this mix. Those fat noodles dressed in the delicious sauce are over-the-top. In this day of trendy restaurants going above and beyond with extraordinary lists of ingredients, I am reminded that sometimes simple is better. Very well done!
The house is quick to respond to concerns from tablemates about two dishes and offer to replace them (my entree included). If a dish is fixable (needs more cooking, etc.) I don't mind sending it back. Otherwise, I'm not big on being a needy diner. They offer complimentary desserts in their stead and both desserts are outstanding.
This isn't standard Italian food. Care in ingredient selection and gently pushing the envelope of flavor are what make this food stand out. Ready for Cena?
Chip Weiner is a Tampa food blogger and an award winning freelance photographer specializing in portraiture, food photography and photojournalism . He has been a photography instructor for over 10 years and teaches Tampa photography classes throughout the year. Have a suggestion for a food event or restaurant? Contact him here
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