Il Ritorno brings back intelligent dining

Il Ritorno, David Benstock’s Italian-inspired restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg, holds a special place in Tampa Bay’s dining scene.

At first glance, it seems like an Italian restaurant. After all, the menu titles major sections with Italian words like “antipasti” and “primi.” But upon closer inspection, most dishes stray a little from classic Italian. And some are not Italian at all.

Chilies find their way into several dishes, and exotic items such as crispy squid ink and pig ears, sprinkle throughout the menu. The inventive cuisine reflects the experiences Benstock picked up working for Wolfgang Puck at the original Spago, stints in New York and Miami, as well as a few years working up and down the boot. So when he returned to his hometown to open his own place, the name Il Ritorno (The Return) seemed fitting. Eight years into it, the restaurant is exciting, thriving and delighting diners who can’t wait to return again and again.

Richness Coats the Mouth

The roasted bone marrow appetizer is the quintessential Il Ritorno dish. Unique ingredients combine to create a complete taste and textural experience. Beef femur bones are slow-roasted and served with a fresh citrus salad. The bone is presented with a small spoon to scoop the marrow, and served with uni toast. The flavor of the marrow is earthy and balanced by the sweet/tart flavors of the orange, grapefruit and shallots. The marrow’s richness coats the mouth with silk before the citrus cuts through it. The toast is a triumph all by itself. Grilled bread, spread with sea urchin and topped with a Parmesan brulee, gets spiced with dots of Fresno chili emulsion and sprinkled with mustard blossoms. Your senses awaken to the smokiness of the toast first, then the Parmesan and uni step forward, just before the Fresno emulsion flickers across your tongue. This is a spectacular start to the culinary adventure of Il Ritorno.

The Smoke Rises Over the Bowl

Tomato salad might sound pretty simple but not the one at Il Ritorno. Diced and seeded heirloom tomatoes are topped with a basil burrata and crowned with a balsamic tuile and micro basil. The burrata and basil are aerated to produce a foamy consistency, unlike the expected texture of traditional burrata. The salad is composed in a shallow bowl and, just before serving, smoked tomato water is poured in. As the smoke rises over the bowl, the water swirls around the tomatoes. It’s a good thing they give you a spoon. You won’t want to miss a drop of this flavorful, and memorable, salad presentation.

A Kiss of Flavor

Primi, or pasta courses, present a treasure trove of unique, and delicious, dishes. Risotto at Il Ritorno is made with a carnaroli Rice. Carnaroli is medium grain rice grown in Northern Italy and is said to produce the finest risotto. The creamy texture is studded with grains of rice, while lemon juice provides a kiss of flavor. Black truffle is generously shaved over the dish, so each bite bursts with the unmistakable black truffle flavor. 

Cheese Strings for Days

One of the most popular dishes on the menu is the short rib mezzaluna. And it’s no wonder, because this dish defines Italian comfort food. Short rib-filled pillows of pasta nestle in a bowl of butter accented with truffle oil. Garlic and slow-roasted tomatoes add a hit of flavor and everything is blanketed with Piave cheese and chives. The cheese strings, each time you pull the spoon to your mouth and by the time each rich and meaty mezzaluna clears your throat, you’re moving in for more. You’ll want to lick the bowl clean.

A Smear Job

The main courses include seafood, pork and steak options. The pan-seared bluefin tuna is a light, and flavorful, dish. Sushi-quality fish, crusted in spice rub, is paired with a smear of green olive citronette and seasonal succotash. Tiny rings of pickled onion grace each slice of tuna and brighten each bite. The citronette is made with Castelvetrano olives and unfiltered olive oil. Its subtle flavor complements the taste of the tuna without taking center stage.

Flavor Changes

Another dish, the black sea bass, is remarkable for a flavor profile that changes while it’s eaten. The fish is accompanied by grilled shishito peppers, roasted kohlrabi and dots of yuzu koshu. Koshu is an Asian condiment made from garlic, chili, yuzu and oil. When the dish is served, fermented tomato dashi is poured in. In the first bites, the mild, flaky fish is complemented mostly with the tomato flavor. As the koshu swirls into the dashi, the lemon flavor mingles the tomato and by the time the sea bass is almost gone, the lemon flavor is front and center. Throughout, the sweetness of the kohlrabi plays beautifully with the smoky peppers. Asian influence, exotic ingredients and the changing flavor profile combine for a delightful experience.

The Greatest Return

Inventive twists flow through the dessert menu as well. The blueberry sponge is a unique take on a blueberry shortcake. In this case, the sponge is super-light and pillowy, surrounded by blueberry confit, crème fraiche gelato and topped with vanilla snow and mint. This dessert is light, bursting with blueberry flavor and showcases the culinary skill and inventiveness of Il Ritorno’s kitchen team. There is something for everyone here. Adventurous diners will appreciate the inventive approach and execution. Traditional diners will find delicious and comforting dishes. And finding a restaurant where everyone leaves happy is the greatest return of all.

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