By lindamakowsky March 18, 2011

(2011) Salute!, a traditional white tablecloth Italian restaurant, bar and café with Tuscan roots, has moved into and significantly upgraded the space briefly occupied by Café & Restaurant Suzette next door to Mattison’s City Grille downtown. It’s a promising newcomer.

For starters, the place looks smarter and fresher inside and out. An inviting wine room and glass-fronted cellar have been added to the dining room, and handsome tiled floors are now the rule throughout. Outdoors, the awning-

shaded, iron-railed patio is considerably more inviting than it used to be. The bar just inside the front door now offers excellent happy hour deals on food and drink or a vivifying mid-afternoon espresso.

We visited a couple of weeks after Salute! opened, when the wait staff was still finding its legs. The food and wine, however, were first rate, and it’s not at all unusual for a restaurant to smooth out a few wrinkles during an initial shakedown period. Overall, promise easily outweighed any little inconsistencies.

The menu is extensive. Bruschette come in six variations and appetizers number 10, including a sampler of three pastas ($10) to share around the table, a very nice idea. If you’re dropping in for a drink or at lunch, a fine option is your choice of three Italian cheeses and three Italian cured meats for $14.95. Panini in seven variations also make excellent lunch fare.

At dinner at a window table in the stylish main dining room, we accompanied our first course with bubbles, pink ones this time, from Domaine Chandon ($8 the glass). Colette chose the savory soup of the day, a creamy marriage of white beans, earthy mushrooms and bits of prosciutto ($6.95). It boded well for the dishes to come. I chose an appetizer trio of tapenade, hummus and olives with toasted bread ($6.95) and found it just right as a starter, tasty but not filling.

The pasta list is a beauty, and I struggled to choose just one. My affection for gnocchi finally won out, this one in a Florentine style: little green dumplings stuffed with spinach and ricotta in an understated cream sauce ($13.95). I’m not sure why it was served in a skillet, but it’s OK with me.

Since it was a cool evening, Colette went for a very autumnal dish called filetto di maiale ai funghi ($16.95), which translates as pan-seared pork tenderloin with grilled apples, Gorgonzola and mushrooms. Call it what you like, it was a winner with plenty of substance and robust flavors.

The restaurant serves several wines from its own vineyards in Tuscany, including its 2006 Casali di Bibbiano Luminoso ($40), a sterling 100 percent Sangiovese that we enjoyed very much. Your host will be proud to walk you through the choices.

Salute! Ristorante & Enoteca

23 N. Lemon Ave., Sarasota

Reservations: (941) 365-1020

Bar: full bar and nice wine list

Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner 4-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Cards: all major

Handicapped accessible: yes

Parking: on street or in nearby city garage



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