Just how many pizza parlors, pasta houses and seafood linguine palaces can this area support? Apparently, there’s always room for one more.
Italian restaurants here are more than plentiful, from intimate, authentic family-run places to mid-price casual chain names to chic high-end Mediterranean experiences. Italian Tradition is a fresh arrival, occupying the space in the Rosemary District’s Citrus Square that was previously the home of Pomona. This historic neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying. On a block of Orange Avenue shops with attractive condominium residences overhead, the American bistro called The Rosemary is at one end of the street, and now Italian Tradition is at the other. Near the downtown core but not yet the recipient of a roundabout, the area has good energy and lots of buzz.
The owners of Italian Tradition are Carlo (chef) and Tina (front of the house) Narbona, who have spent some 30 years in the restaurant business. They and their team had a soft opening toward the end of summer without changing the sophisticated decor of the two dining rooms and pretty, enclosed outdoor patio area. They may put their own stamp on the décor later, but for now, it’s comfortable, classy and familiar, especially for regulars at the previous establishment.
Our server, who is Venetian, told us he had worked at the owners’ restaurants in Barcelona and Costa Rica and followed them to Sarasota to help get Italian Tradition up and running. Hospitality here is right on the mark; the service is accomplished and professional. The pace of the evening is leisurely, with a good offering of cocktails and wines, appetizers, entrées and a lovely dessert menu. The bread service is a great beginning, with fresh, warm rolls and three accompaniments for dipping or spreading. The anchovy-herb one is addictive.
The owners have said their intention is to use authentic products to prepare recipes that express the cuisine culture of the regions of Italy. I was looking for something truly Italian but out of the ordinary. It wasn’t the lasagna layered with foie gras and mushrooms that pushed the price for an adequate portion up to $22 and seemed more French than Italian. A better choice was the veal osso buco, fall-off-the-bone tender and flavorful, with lots of velvety marrow to be scooped from the bone. It was served with a creamy saffron risotto for the hefty price of $37.50.
Four fish dishes didn’t seem at all Italian except for a side of cheese risotto. Chef chose the usual suspects: grilled tuna, baked sea bass and grilled Alaskan salmon paired with au gratin potatoes and a vegetable medley of the day. For pasta and meat entrées, there’s mixed seafood and pasta, clams and spaghetti, pasta Bolognese, beef tenderloin topped with foie gras ($39.50) or grilled steak.
The most interesting part of the menu is the starter section. You could assemble a fine Italian meal from appetizers, such as a plate composed of roasted veal slices fanned out under a creamy sauce of shaved capers and tuna ($15.50). (It’s called tonnato di vitello.)
Another choice could be the house calamari, which is fried shrimp, calamari and onion rolled and fried in rice flour and served with a spicy garlic-mayonnaise sauce ($15.50). Or maybe the tartare de tonno—raw tuna, olive oil, avocado and fennnel leaves. Terrific flavor; clean and herbal at $17.50.
Be sure to try a dessert; the dolce menu focuses on traditional Italian sweets (except for ubiquitous creme brûlée). Desserts range from $8 to $11, and the pistachio semifreddo (like a frozen mousse) is especially nice ($9). A dessert that sandwiches fresh gelato between slices of Italian sponge cake ($11) is simple but satisfying. The restaurant also does a board of French and Italian cheeses served with organic honey and house-made marmalades for $22, a good way to finish a meal as Europeans often do. All coffee is espresso.
Italian Tradition offers pleasant fine-dining in a sophisticated setting. But despite the names of the various dishes (in Italian with English explanations), the food doesn’t come across as particularly indigenous to various regions of Italy—unless the owners are thinking of popular dishes that tourists sometimes crave whether they are traveling or eating in their hometown.
Italian Tradition Restaurant & Martini Bar | 481 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota | (941) 706-1677 | Open daily except Tuesdays for lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., and dinner, 5-10 p.m. Handicapped accessible. Full bar