(2009) On 13th Street West near 13th Avenue West in Bradenton’s still nascent Village of the Arts, look for a brightly painted cottage under a big shade tree and a hand-lettered sign at the curb: EAT HERE. Heed the sign. You have found Ortygia, a hidden treasure.
Chef Gaetano Cannata, who presides over both his kitchen and his cozy dining rooms with cheerful enthusiasm and obvious passion for his culinary roots, might be repairing a chair leg when you pop in for an early lunch. As soon as you walk through the door, however, there will be nothing on his mind but feeding you extremely well at a good price.
We visited twice recently and were charmed both times. The little house and its herb-scented patio feel instantly like home, provided home comes with a chef whose lively memory overflows with recipes learned from his Sicilian mother and father. This is not fancy cooking, exactly, but it is elegant.
Once at lunch and once at dinner we shared full portions of Cannata’s housemade patés: a nearly black, very rich mushroom paté alive with capers, olives and a hint of Marsala, and a beautiful fresh chicken paté sweetened with basil and pistachios ($7.50 each, or choose the combo for $7.95). We were dead set on paté for starters this time, but we were sorely tempted, too, by the pepperoni ripiene, which stuffs sweet red bell peppers with provolone and Parmigiano, tomatoes, pine nuts and black currants, and the melanzana farcito, in which whole baby eggplants are stuffed with pecorino, mozzarella and basil before being simmered in tomatoes, basil and garlic. Next time, we promised ourselves, without fail.
At dinner, Colette ordered the big production number called timballo di penne ($9.75), because she’d always wanted to taste it and had never before found it on a menu. Ortygia fills the pasta dome that gives the dish its name with meatballs, eggs, mozzarella, provolone, tomato sauce and roasted peppers between pasta layers moist with the Italian white sauce called balsamella and Parmigiano. Whew! You wouldn’t think an extravaganza like that could be light, but it was.
The chef persuaded me to sample a daily special he didn’t bother to name for me. “It’s tuna,” he said, “very good.” Turns out he is given to understatement. The dish ($16.95), combining chunks of fresh firm fish with peppers, onions and artichoke hearts in a fragrant sauce relying heavily on balsamic vinegar, was celestial. I said so. “My father’s recipe,” Cannato replied with a very broad smile.
As you can imagine, we were well satisfied, but science demanded we sample at least one dessert. We decided on tiramisu ($4.75), hoping the caffeine in it would wake us up for the drive home. It did, but that’s not the half of it. This was tiramisu to wake the gods. Real Italian ladyfingers were liberally soaked in espresso and brandy, teamed with cool zabaglione and triple-cream mascarpone, and the whole delightful confection garnished with shaved dark chocolate. Oh, my. It was so good we ordered a dense slab of chocolate paté on a bed of raspberry chocolate sauce ($4.50) to go and left before we could succumb to further temptation. ‘Round midnight, however, you should have heard the exclamations of delight emanating from two chairs at our kitchen table.
1418 13th St. W., Bradenton
Reservations: (941) 741-8646
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Cards: V, MC, Discover
Handicapped accessible: yes
Parking: off street