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Jeff Houck

The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.

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Belly Dancing, Juggling, Acrobats And Dinner [Celebrating Carnevale Like A Venetian At Donatello]

Posted Feb 21, 2013 by Jeff Houck

Updated Feb 21, 2013 at 09:47 AM

Donatello's il Carnevale di Venezia

One of my favorite events in Tampa is the celebration of Carnevale at Donatello Italian restaurant on south Dale Mabry Highway. The annual event takes place again tonight.

With Tampa’s reputation based mostly on its Cuban and Hispanic roots, it’s easy to forget that Italian stone cutters also formed the backbone of society during the city’s early days. Carnevale is a great reminder of that heritage.

For one night, the restaurant dips a toe in the glorious excess that is pre-Lenten Venice, complete with masks, belly dancing, acrobats, opera singers, juggling, card reading and a menu full of incredibly authentic food from Northern Italy.

I went for the first time three years ago and had a blast. There may or may not have been a moment when I clutched a rose between my teeth. I can neither confirm nor deny.

Yes, I said belly dancers.

Donatello's il Carnevale di Venezia

That there is just some good, clean, Italian fun.

Carnevale dates back to the 1100s in Italy, when it became an event marking the passage into Lent. Think Mardi Gras, only with fewer beads.

I had a chance to speak with Donatello co-owner Alessandra Tiozzo about how the event came together at the restaurant. She was at home at the time, working on a few details for the event.

* * * * *

You sound busy. Do you have time to talk?

I am home now. I’m trying to learn how to use the synthesizer because I’m going to be the deejay for the Carnevale. It’s very confusing. I have a small one.

First of all, do you understand me?

Yes I do.

Because I have a very strong accent. Maybe on the phone sometimes it is difficult.

Not at all. It’s a beautiful accent.

Can I say something before?

I want to tell you how it came out this idea of the Carnivale.

Go right ahead.

I am from Italia, of course. I go to Italy very often. We are from Venezia, so this Carnevale is something that has been part of all my life. This kind of Carnevale, what they now call Venetian Carnevale, it began about 20 years ago because it was stopped for many years. In the beginning, it was something wonderful because it wasn’t something touristic. It was only for the people in Venice.

Then after a while they began to open little shops where they began to do masks and paint masks, they closed the grocery shops and the bakeries. Because they were always doing these masks, the Carnevale became a very huge tourist thing. Even scary to go out, after a few years. You know, the streets are very narrow and there was a big crowd of people coming and they were drinking.

We in Venice, the people of Venice began to get very snobbish about this Carnevale. So I was very snobbish about this Carnevale. All the other shops they had to close for it… ba-ba-ba.

A few years ago, a friend of mine who has an Italian school in Tampa, she came up with the idea to do the Carnevale for her students. I was … Hmmmm… with my nose turned up. She did a small party and she called up a belly dancer and two singers. But it was very fun. It was very, very, very fun.

The year after, I said we have to do it here for our guests. If you don’t mind, I’ll do it.

Now we have a magician, a palm reader, a juggler, two opera singers, a belly dancer and I have tango dancing and other surprises.

Then every person who comes in, I give them a number and there’s a drawing. I have some masks from Venice and so I give them out like a present. Everyone who comes, I also give a mask if they want to dress up so they have something to wear on their face.

Donatello's il Carnevale di Venezia

Are there any Carnevale-specific foods?

Only desserts. They do frittelle and galani (pictured above). They eat what they normally eat otherwise. In the shops there, they have cakes. It’s the only time of the year you find the frittelli or galani.

Everywhere in Italy, Carnevale is only the sweet side that changes. In the south, they have a different kind of sweets. In the north, where I’m from, they have different sweets. You know, in Italy, we are very different in the north and south, east and west.

* * * * *

Donatello's il Carnevale di Venezia

For reservations to tonight’s dinner, call (813) 875-6660

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