The first time I ever went to IL Ritorno back in 2014, I said that it reminds me of dining in New York City. I meant that from the overall experience. Initially it was the ambience of an old, historic building with exposed brick, but then it followed through with the superior service, and the out-of-this world cuisine. After the first or second visit, we requested a “meeting” with Chef David Benstock. This was three years prior to St. Petersburg Foodies existing, so when we came in early with the purpose of our meeting being to make a monthly reservation for six months out, chef was looking at us like “who the heck are these people?”
I don’t really know how many times we’ve been to IL Ritorno over the years, but I’ll take a guess at somewhere around 40-45, with last night being the most recent. Do you know how when you start a new relationship, and you have the honeymoon period? Everything is new, exciting, your heart flutters, and there are so many other wonderful feelings. It’s like that with IL Ritorno, except that it never ends. Many times, people will describe amazing eats as “orgasmic”. It couldn’t be more fitting here. I’m a food writer that is nearly at a loss for words only because I don’t think it’s fair to describe this fare with the same words used for others. So, as you read this, please keep in mind that I will try to use as few adjectives to describe the food as possible, and just imagine that it all tastes better than anything you have ever put in your mouth, and then times it by ten.
We made a visit on Thursday, April 22 to try out some of the new spring menu items. Here they are in order. We got full portions and shared them. This is not all of the new items, so be sure to check out the menu. Link is at the end.
Crispy Polenta infused with ramps and topped with sturgeon caviar. Crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside with salty popping caviar. What’s not to like here? We paired with a Prosecco.
Asparagus Soup – garlic, shallots, crispy squash blossom stuffed with charred scallions and ricotta, pickled morels, whipped crème fraiche, charred spring onion, Ligurian olive oil. There were wonderful contrasting textures and flavors between the creamy puréed asparagus, the crunchy dark flavor of the charred spring onion, the crunchy outside and velvety inside of the squash blossom, and the fresh brightness of the house grown pea tendrils that topped it. Paired with a bright, somewhat fruity white wine.
Spring Burrata – morel mushrooms, English peas, sautéed snap peas, beet pickled spring onion, tangerine, preserved kumquats. There were so many delightful flavors and textures in this one that we were immediately addicted, and ate like we were ravenous starving wolves. We were just uncontrollably shoveling it in. This was right after we said we weren’t going to finish any of the dishes so we would have enough room for everything. We finished it.
It paired beautifully with Etna Rosso Nerello Mascalese from the Mount Etna region of Sicily. It is a light bodied fruit forward wine, and the only red we had.
Sweetbreads – ramp tonnato sauce, heirloom tomatoes, shaved fennel, topped with mustard frill, chili gel. Chef Benstock says, “Vitelli tonnato is a classic Italian fish with veal and a sauce made from tuna. We infuse the tonnato sauce with ramps. We cure tuna, then confit it, then purée with capers, garlic, Meyer lemon and emulsify the confit oil back in and then purée ramps in it to finish.” It was so good. It was like elevated super tender fried chicken.
We paired this with Frascati – a blend of Malvasia Chardonnay and Greco from just south of Rome. It was a great pairing with the fried sweetbreads. It’s a white with a little bit of acidity, stone fruit, citrus, vanilla.
Spring Spaghetti – charred scallion pesto, wild foraged yellow foot mushrooms, Meyer lemon, Fava beans, pickled spring onions, mustard frill, crispy garlic, ramp greens. This dish is a wake up call to your tastebuds. It hit every flavor point imaginable.
We paired with one of Italy’s oldest and most famous varietals – Vermentino. This was an Antinori Vermentino from Tuscany. It was citrus forward with a nutty finish that helps reset each bite.
Next up was Taleggio Agnolotti that’s been “Springed up a bit.” Instead of regular pasta dough this has a ramp purée infused into it. There are charred leaks, crispy pickled eggplant, and beurre parmesan sauce. This was another flavor bomb.
[Funny side note: We’ve been enjoying Taleggio in different IL Ritorno dishes for years. Recently, I bought some to take home and when I offered it to Lori, she was completely disgusted by it on its own. I loved just eating it plain, or with some crusty bread. She does love it when it is cooked into the food though.]
This was paired with Poggio le Volpi ‘Donnaluce’. It’s a similar blend to the Frascati. Predominantly Malvasia with Greco and Chardonnay from Lazio, Italy. It was delightful with the pungent Taleggio, charred leaks, and buttery sauce. The wine had a soft mouthfeel, with notes of pear, apple, lemon, vanilla, and mint.
Sgroppino – sorbet, Grey Goose Le Citron Vodka, lemon juice, and Prosecco was a great palate cleanser.
Pan Seared Scallops – smoked yuzu fennel purée, braised fennel, caramelized fennel, yellow foot mushrooms, charred asparagus, crispy prosciutto, watermelon radish.
Another amazing dish. All of the ingredients worked so well together, and that crispy prosciutto. Mmmm.
(I feel like sending this photo to Hell’s Kitchen to show them what a seared scallop should look like.)
2018 Antica Chardonnay from Napa Valley was a splendid pairing for the scallops. The crisp nature of this wine nicely cut with the yuzu and fennel purée, and the richness of the scallops.
Mascarpone Grand Marnier Gelato a graham cracker crumble & Espresso Cheesecake Tiramisu with espresso bark with a rum caramel ended the night like a warm hug – even though it was cold. The flavors were perfectly balanced – not too sweet, and the crumble and bark provided perfect texture contrasts.
Modern, upscale Italian