CLEARWATER — I just can’t seem to get my hands on the tiramisu at Soul Sicilian Fusion.
Every time I go, they’re sold out. It’s the dish I’ve heard the most about — the one thing servers always recommend, before quickly catching themselves and explaining that, unfortunately, it’s been “eighty-sixed” for the evening.
It’s just as well, really. Because by the time I’ve gorged myself on thick hunks of burrata draped in olive oil and hearty plates of pasta studded with pancetta, well, I probably don’t need dessert.
Soul Sicilian Fusion opened in September in downtown Clearwater and is run by newlyweds Natalya Harisson and Nello Mensa. The couple met in Sicily, where Mensa — who is Sicilian — had run several other restaurant concepts, before moving to the Tampa Bay area earlier this year.
The restaurant occupies a small, sparsely decorated space that fits approximately 10 tables and a handful of barstools wrapped around a tall counter. It’s a charming, if somewhat bare-bones, approach and a pleasant enough dining atmosphere while seated at one of the white tablecloth-draped tables.
I’d warn against sitting at the bar, however, unless you find pleasure in bumping your knees up against the wall below, where the lack of indentation makes for pretty uncomfortable seating. (The buildout has more in common with a kitchen island than something suited to actual diners.)
The restaurant’s name needs a bit of a disclaimer, too. Including the term “fusion” is a real misnomer, and a curious choice. There is nothing — and I mean nothing — about this restaurant that screams the f-word. This is simple, classic Italian cuisine, most of it done quite well.
That confusion carries over to other aspects of dining here. On one visit, the kitchen sent out little complimentary plates of toasts topped with salami and provolone cheese. Was it just a nice start to a meal, or a distraction from the slightly slow and harried service? Either way, the tiny open-faced sandwiches provided a nice way to pass the time while we waited to put our order in.
Service is a little slow, but not because of a lack of professionalism on the waitstaff’s part. This is a tiny restaurant that feels understaffed when it gets busy all at once, and the kitchen is mostly a one-man show. Mensa has a few folks back there helping out with prep work. But for the most part, he’s the one tossing the pasta, searing steaks and plating pretty much every single dish on any given night. It’s a small and personal operation, and knowing this I found it acceptable to overlook the longer-than-usual wait for some dishes.
The small selection of appetizers, or antipasti, includes a starter of thick slices of prosciutto paired with pillowlike orbs of burrata, which come spliced partially open and drooling with bright green olive oil. Missing on both visits was bread, but when asked for, the kitchen delivered a warm, crusty loaf that did the trick.
Also very good is the polpo dorato en crema di patate ($19) — octopus that gets boiled, then pan-fried and served on a bed of creamy potato puree, served with crispy nuggets of fried potatoes and asparagus. The octopus arrived bronzed and crispy but with an incredibly soft and tender texture and was drizzled with a light balsamic glaze that lent just a hint of sweetness.
I was less impressed with the caprese ($12). For a dish that hinges on the quality and freshness of just three ingredients (mozzarella, basil and tomatoes), there’s a fine line between seasonal superstar and somewhat lackluster. The one here falls somewhere in the middle: The tomatoes were fruity and ripe; the cheese firm yet moist enough to sop up some of the olive oil and tomato juices. But it was also in dire need of some salt and came with just one lonely piece of basil, at which point I wondered if the dish was really worth its namesake.
The menu is organized in classic Italian style, with a selection of primi, or pastas, that includes several familiar faces like lasagne al ragu ($19), spaghetti al pomodoro ($12) and spaghetti carbonara ($18). Because the operation is such a small one, there’s a good bet that some of the best pasta choices are going to be listed on the weekly specials menu, where I’ve come across a charcoal-black squid ink pasta ($24) as well as an excellent spaghetti all’Amatriciana ($16).
Here, the classic Italian dish of bucatini wrapped in juicy tomato sauce and fortified with thick strips of guanciale (cured slices of pork jowl) swaps spaghetti for the bucatini, but it is exceptional, packing a subtle heat from plenty of hearty grinds of black pepper and dried chili flakes.
Also unique is a soupy dish of risotto ($19) with Gorgonzola cheese, fresh pears, walnuts and, the real kicker, a sprinkling of cocoa powder to counter the nutty, salty flavor of the blue cheese.
Entrees, or secondi, play within a similar Italian framework, from chicken Parmesan ($19) to the classic Italian steak tagliata ($31), a grilled New York strip steak sliced thinly against the grain and topped with a light arugula salad drizzled with olive oil. It’s a simple dish that could have used a little seasoning but serves as a good reminder of what this restaurant does well.
Where the restaurant left me hanging was the dessert, and not only because they were out of tiramisu, but because the replacement dessert suggested — an $8 chocolate “mousse” — was little more than a martini glass filled with chocolate-flavored whipped cream.
If you’re in the neighborhood and craving Italian, this will hit the spot. I’ll be back to Soul Sicilian Fusion when I’m in the mood for some simple, classic Italian food — a twirl of spaghetti carbonara, maybe, and a glass of Montepulciano, definitely. Maybe one of these days I’ll even get my hands on that tiramisu.
What the ratings mean
1-2: Don’t waste your time
3-5: Fair, but could be better
6-8: Pretty darn good
9-10: What are you waiting for?
If you go
516 Cleveland St., Clearwater; (727) 754-3259; soulsicilianfusion.com
Hours: Dinner, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday to Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Antipasti, $14 to $21; primi (pastas), $14 to $26; secondi (entrees), $16 to $31.
Recommended dishes: octopus; spaghetti all’Amatriciana; steak tagliata