Monday, January 19, 2015

Where We Eat: Ciccio Cali in New Tampa

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day I finished writing Act IV of my new American tragedy theatrical piece dubbed Ciccio Cali. Act IV, like the previous three acts, was set in the beautiful outdoor seating area of a restaurant, Ciccio Cali, in Tampa Palms. The weather was perfect, just the right amount of Florida sunshine and shady trees and seventy-degree temperatures floating in the air. The table was covered with food. At one place setting was a wrap. As usual, this wrap looked and tasted amazing. At another place setting was a bowl filled with farro, veggies and a peanut sauce. Act IV saw this bowl fall just a step below the top notch performance we had come to expect from the earlier acts (not quite enough sauce). But slightly below top notch at Ciccio Cali is beyond the reach of what most restaurants can do even during their finest hours. To truly grasp the power of Act IV, we need to return to Act I.

Ciccio Cali exists in a place that used to be reserved solely for beer drinking. It was never high on my list of places to visit in the Tampa area despite the fact that it consistently popped up on recommendations and isn’t far from our apartment. Why did I avoid this place? Because my wife and mother-in-law dined there and enjoyed the food immensely but every time they talked about how good it was, my mother-in-law always brought up that it seemed expensive. That was a major turn off. So anytime my wife suggested Ciccio Cali, it was immediately shot down. “You’ll love it,” she would say. “Yeah and I’d also have to pay for it,” was my typical response. Eventually, due to reasons that at this time have been forgotten, I gave into her pleas for a lunch date at Ciccio Cali. I promised myself that I would hate it. But, despite all the willing and wishing, I was not able to hate the place. In fact, I damn near loved it.

The wrap that Ciccio Cali made for me was a Buffalo wrap (sans the blue cheese). Instead of filling it with blackened chicken, I asked for the veggie and broccoli mix. The veggies were combined with some rice (for slightly more you can combine your veggies with farro or spaghetti squash) and then mixed with a slightly spicy buffalo sauce. The tortilla was pressed in a way that simultaneously crisped the outside and clamped it shut. It was the type of tortilla job that immediately makes me question my own cooking skills. Why can’t I ever seem to replicate this snuggly, fried tortilla blanket at home? Along with the wrap came a dip of my choice. I went with their mustard which has a sweet, tangy taste. While mustard and buffalo sauce may sound like a weird pairing, it actually worked. In fact, it worked so well that it conjured visions of some of the American duos that have made this country great. It was sort of like eating the condiment version of Sonny and Cher, Laurel and Hardy or Ike and Tina.


                           My Veggie Wrap

J-Fur’s meal of choice has been (and always will be) the Peanut Stir Fry with farro. This meal is piled high with veggies, farro and peanuts and then covered with a delicious peanut sauce. The sauce isn’t spicy or super sweet and it doesn’t overload you with peanut flavor. It flows nicely with the veggies and farro.


                            J-Fur’s Stir-Fry

About the only thing we didn’t like on this initial visit is that we ordered a side of farro and pesto for our daughter. The pesto was cream based (mayonnaise?) which wasn’t something we expected. The baby didn't like it and neither did we.

Are there any downsides to Ciccio Cali? There are a few. Namely their dinner prices and brunch menu. I am okay with paying the lunch time prices. The plates of food are pretty big so I don’t leave feeling hungry. At ten dollars, the wrap is right at the edge of where I feel that I am getting value for the amount of money I pay. Dinner ups the prices a dollar and, while it isn’t much, it pushes the meal past that point. So I only dine at Ciccio Cali during the lunch hours. No problem, I have weekends off. I’ll just show up then for some wrap love. Not so fast butterfly. Ciccio Cali has a special brunch menu on weekends and the wrap I love isn’t part of it. Neither is J-Fur’s Peanut dish. That means we can’t dine at Ciccio on weekends either. So no nights or weekends at the restaurant and a job that doesn’t allow me to slip away for lunch. Basically, we are limited for when we can visit this place. But I’m okay with that. Ciccio Cali’s becomes another reason to look forward to those days off work.

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The perfect song for Act I at Ciccio Cali is the St. Tropez’s “I Don’t Wanna Fall in Love”. I really
didn’t, and tried not to, but the restaurant had other ideas.