I’m sipping a smartly made French martini, enjoying a tasty dish of tuna tartare and listening to ebullient jazz music performed by an Italian gentleman who could be a long lost relative. My amazing wife Kristin, wearing an adorable dress from a Bradenton boutique called Lily Bliss, sips a key lime martini. She also raves about the raw fish dish and says her drink is “frothy, light and refreshing.” We’re at the downstairs bar at 15 South Ristorante Enoteca on Sunday around 6 p.m. and everything is just right.
The walls are covered with magnificent pictures of the Italian Riviera. Luigi sings softly and sweetly in Italian while gently playing an old upright piano; then he performs the dulcet melody on muted trumpet. The aroma of our freshly made pizza in the handsome wood-burning oven catches our attention and now we’re watching the pie bake. I run my hand over the cool granite bar and grab my glass of sparkling wine carefully laced with peach vodka and blackberry brandy.
The evening sun seeps in from St. Armands Circle but we are oblivious to the outside world. Kristin and I love St. Armands but we’re also fond of the welcome distraction that comes from a spot that transports you from Sarasota, Bradenton, etc. Here, it’s as if we are nestled along the Italian Riviera. It’s as if we’re dining somewhere knowledgeable celebrities might frequent while staying in 15 South owner Joe Casadio’s hometown of Portofino.
“That’s where he’s at right now,” says our bartender, also named Joe. He’s Joseph Vicario.
Our Joe is affable, excels at mixology and knows his way around the extensive wine list. He speaks Italian with the chef, Alex, before serving us the Parma pizza we observed blossom from a ball of dough to a work of edible art. It’s a perfectly prepared and cooked combination of tomato sauce, mozzarella, arugula, prosciutto di parma and shaved parmigiano. I try to pace myself but fail, miserably. It’s the old salad and pizza combination taken to a monumental level of luxury. Kristin is capable of eating slow and savoring each bite and I’m, well, amazed.
“It’s because I take the time to chew,” she says, with a smile.
Kristin orders the cantaloupe martini, which proves an ideal companion for our prosciutto covered pizza. My mom often serves cantaloupe and prosciutto as an appetizer at family gatherings. Maybe I could make cantaloupe martinis at Thanksgiving? I keep this thought to myself because playing bartender at family gatherings really isn’t much fun.
I don’t know if our bartender, Joe, is asked to sling drinks when he gets around his family during the holidays but he’s doing an ace job with us.
The cantaloupe martini - I’m liberally drinking from my wife’s glass - is great but I’m feeling a need for something a bit more traditional, a beverage that speaks more to my heritage. I want a glass of Chianti. Joe recommends the 2010 Castello Banfi Chianti Classico. I sniff just like I was taught, compliment the fragrance, sip, and ask him to please pour away. I now have a fat glass of red in front of me. It’s at once dry and rich and delicious.
Kristin and I chat with Joe for about an hour more about all sorts of things dating back to the Sarasota nightlife scene of the early 2000s. It was an exciting and rather strange scene all three of us witnessed, independently, first hand. We feel like we have made a friend in Joe, a person who has surely served me drinks before, probably the last one about a decade ago.
My wife and I leave with a to-go box filled with about half our pizza and a second box containing some outstanding tiramisu.
We stroll along the sidewalks of St. Armands Circle and talk of returning to 15 South in the near future. We want to return for the drinks, for the pizza, for the excellent service, for the photos on the wall of Portofino and for the wonderful, escapist experience that made us forget, at least temporarily, about our deadlines and commitments in Bradenton and Sarasota.
15 South Ristorante Enoteca, 15 South Blvd. of the Presidents, St. Armands; 388-1555; 15southristorante.com.