Mart and I ask ourselves how it’s even possible to still be amazed by how delicious the food is at Sarasota’s locally owned restaurants. I can’t tell you how often our meals exceed expectations, as it did at Valentino Pizzeria & Trattoria, a family-friendly restaurant off Clark Road, just east of Sawyer.
Take something as simple as a bowl of Escarole and Bean soup. Knowing that Chef Michael Valentino and his staff had a number of recommendations for us to sample, I knew within the first spoon or two of their soup that it better be taken away from me, or I’d eat the entire bowl and not have room for an appetizer, salad or main entrée.
Don’t you agree, that a well-constructed bowl of soup can totally make your day? Even in the summer, I’ll often crave that blend of savory ingredients that soups and sauces provide and I relish the way the ingredients bounce off each other while blending in harmony. That’s why I absolutely loved this soup! (I hear their Pasta Fagioli is excellent as well.)
We were fortunate to join fellow food bloggers and bon vivants Jack and Beth Littman-Quinn for a tasting dinner at Valentino’s, which is an opportunity we’d never pass up. Besides enjoyable company, Jack and Beth offer their own opinions of the food, which we shared family style. . . meaning we could try more dishes like you’d do at Sunday supper at nonna’s house.
For our appetizers, we were presented with three tastings; firstly, Stuffed Mushrooms broiled with breadcrumbs, spinach, mozzarella stuffing and Marsala sauce. The plate came with four large mushrooms, so each of us were able to dig in and enjoy. The earthy flavors of the ‘shroom paired well with the Marsala wine sauce and invited us to “mangia” the rest of the evening. And isn’t that what an appetizer is supposed to do?
We also shared a gorgeous plate of Carmelina’s Calamari. Served without the breading you commonly see on most menus, this recipe featured sautéed calamari and olives, capers, fresh tomato with a hint of hot pepper and onion. The calamari was perfectly tender (no small feat,) and the hint of salt from the capers turned up the flavor. (Incidentally, if you are a fan of the fried version, Valentino’s also offers a Crispy Calamari – so go for it!)
Our third shared appetizer was the Jersey Platter. The name reminded me of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, all of which presented themselves on the plate. High notes of fennel in the sausage harmonized sweetly with the broccoli rabe, crispy edges of the thinly sliced potatoes and the zesty heat of the long hot peppers. Pure Jersey gold!
Next, we all enjoyed a brief interlude of salad, a classic tasting Toni Salad, named after Chef Michael’s wife. Chunks of crisp lettuce were tossed with sliced pepperoni, salami, ham, provolone, fresh mozzarella, red onions, cucumber, black olives and roasted red peppers. This wasn’t just a salad — it was a bite-sized charcuterie and crudité platter!
Then it was another ‘resistance is futile’ course, especially for Mart. The four of us shared three personal sized pizzas, choosing (quite wisely) to split a slice of each between each couple. We were treated to a White Pizza with spinach and homemade garlic cream ricotta, and classic cheese pizza, and Chef Michael’s favorite – Grandma’s Pizza served on a square, thin crust with plum tomato sauce, pecorino, and mozzarella. Each pizza featured a crust with the edges slightly blistered, exactly as I love it.
After thoroughly enjoying these three pies, we had to have the rest packed up. In our book, not finishing pizza, whether it’s now or tomorrow, is culinary malfeasance at the very least, right?
Leaning back for a moment, we all commented on how steadily busy Valentino’s was on a (rainy) Tuesday night in June. Isn’t this supposed to be the “quiet time” for local restaurants?
The name trattoria hardly fits the quality of the food coming out of Valentino’s kitchen. The Chicken Scarpariello, served with sweet sausage, mushrooms, onions, vinegar peppers (yep, vinegar peppers,) and sliced potatoes in a white wine sauce isn’t something you’d normally expect in a trattoria, which is essentially an Italian restaurant serving simple food. There’s nothing “simple” about this elevated dish. The chicken was as tender as could be imagined, and the potato skins blistered and crisp. Maybe it’s simple for Chef Valentino, but for me? Not so much.
Equally impressive was the Veal Cardinale. Again, this was no “simple” veal dish, as each slice was bathed in a rich marsala sauce and partnered with shiitake mushrooms, prosciutto, spinach, and mozzarella. Only a skilled chef can take a handful of seemingly basic ingredients and combine them to make a dish sing like this.
We couldn’t eat Italian without a pasta dish, and I’m so pleased that Chef suggested the Tortellini Di Pasquale. What pleasure it was to delve into this dish of light cream sauce, roasted garlic, basil and fresh tomato over homemade tortellini. There was a forward taste of prosciutto in the dish, with that salty flair that cuts through the cream, providing a savory taste to every bite.
Our final entrée tasting was Valentino’s not-to-be-missed Cioppino. This large bowl of briny clams, shrimp, mussels, calamari and cod absolutely shined in a light garlic based red sauce.
The men ordered cups of Italian espresso while I sipped on a caramel cappuccino – the best I’ve had EVER! As we watched the remnants of a tropical storm pass by, I couldn’t help but wonder if a rainbow wouldn’t be far behind.
Unbeknownst to us, that rainbow came in the culinary flavors of a dessert tray, featuring cheesecake, a light and luscious Tiramisu, four crunchy Cannoli’s and my personal favorite, Nutella Sliders. While all the desserts were scrumptious, these sliders were new to me, featuring zeppole inspired Italian fried dough with hazel nuttiness of the Nutella and a raspberry sauce sandwiched between the two. While the colors of the rainbow weren’t there, the flavors I’d imagine in a rainbow certainly were. Sweet, light, floating, nutty, creamy . . . ahhh!
If When you go to Valentino Pizzeria & Trattoria, may I suggest you do what we did? Go with your large family or a table full of friends so you can enjoy as many of the tempting entrées, desserts, appetizers or pizzas on the menu. Make sure you wear your stretchy pants, and don’t even think of getting on the scale the next day. All that delicious food will be too delicious to resist. Trust me!
P.S. If it’s more convenient for you, you can find the same outstanding fare at their Cooper Creek location, off University Parkway. We’re betting you’ll be for more back as well!