Florida food worth worshipping
St. Petersburg’s downtown got a massive helping of the food millennium with the opening of Locale, a two-story amusement park for foodies with at least 10 kitchens, a market, bakery, butcher shop, seafood counter, wine bar and seats for eight-course farm to-table dinners.
The setting is thoroughly modern: Gleaming white tile, glistening glass and shiny stainless steel is mixed with wrought iron, chalkboard and barn wood. Industrial farmhouse plainness set in a shopping center is a perfect backdrop for an explosion of colors, dry-aged prime red, beet golds and reds, kale greens, macaroon pastels, gelato neons, oven-hot browns and sleek squidink black.
Eat on small plates with a glass of viognier at the wine bar, on disposable trays at 120 seats outside with kombucha tea or an applekale- spinach smoothie, or load up on takeout for tonight’s dinner or tomorrow’s pantry.
Or just ogle in awe. Visitors ooh and aah, while boosters shrug that it’s just new St. Petersburg.
When two of the biggest food trends collide — the booming demand for local ingredients and big-city celebrity chefs — it’s joyous confusion. The stars behind Locale are from San Francisco and New York — Michael Mina (of Miami’s Stripsteak, Bourbon Steak, Michael Mina 74 and a dozen more) and Don Pintabona (of Tribeca Grill), lured to St. Petersburg by the city’s biggest promoter, Sundial developer Bill Edwards.
The chefs gave Edwards much more than a restaurant. They had been noodling about a Europeanstyle food hall, an idea slowly growing around the U.S. and epitomized by Eataly, an Italian chain with 27 locations around the world, including New York and Chicago.
What set theirs apart was the accent on local inventory, a step beyond the gourmet delicacies imported from Italy and California. Pintabona, who once lived in Tampa, was thrilled and surprised on his return. He spent six months foraging in the waters and fields around Tampa Bay.
“I didn’t expect local bottarga or caviar,” he says, but he found them on Anna Maria Island and in Sarasota, along with hogfish fresh from spearfishing divers, a startup clam grower in Tampa Bay, chocolate wizards and new generation picklers, home fermenters and small farmers.
Produce at Locale is organic and often local, including dandelion greens, chard sage, dill and more. Meat is cut and dry-aged in house, including jalapeño bacon cured on site. There’s fresh breads, pastas and salads cranked out in open kitchens at every turn, a gourmet’s chance to peek backstage.
To these ingredients Mina’s outfit added its trademark flair and 150 well-trained crew to the kitchens, retail operations and loading docks. For all its polish and top-dollar prices, Locale wants to taste like home, which wasn’t always 2-pound tomahawk chops, a $13 St. Petersburger or coddled duck eggs and crispy feta.
For Mina, home was Cairo and his mother’s lentils, chickpeas and rice — the Egyptian national dish. While it’s not on the Locale menu, his personal falafel burger is there. Pintabona’s taste buds are rooted in his Italian- American heritage and small Brooklyn shops.
Their key chef, Chris Bisiotis, was born in Greece but came straight from two years at Eataly and is a strong advocate of Italian simplicity. He prefers to use only a few terrific ingredients, like his hand-cut chitarra pasta with truffle and cheese or grilled fish with fennel and tomato-ey lentils.
“It’s very simple,” he says. “The Italians stayed close to the land.’’
And the market.
Italian cooking is getting a fresh look and taste across Florida as chefs of all flags explore rustic favors and traditions. A few of the new ones:
St. Petersburg: Less than two blocks from Locale at the downtown Sundial shopping complex, St. Petersburg’s pioneer market, Mazzaro’s has opened a lusty Italian enoteca (wine bar) called Annata. Expansive charcuterie and cheese boards, plus pasta with lamb ragu, house pickles and more country flavors are joined by a massive wine list of Italy’s rarest and most intriguing grapes.
Tampa: The new Ava wows with flashy decor, the personality of Chicago Cubs coach Joe Maddon (a partner) and cooking that’s just as engaging. This Italian comes via L.A. hotspots and gastropubs: Fried kale salad, lentils and pork belly, pizzas and whole baked heads of cauliflower.
Miami: Sardinia has long served its distinctive island cuisine and has now opened Brickell restaurant Moye saluting another rustic region, Apulia. Design is as slick and cool as the food is warm and robustly Pugliese: Traditional orecchiette and rapini pork and artichokes and zucchini. Next stop is Campania in the design district for a taste of the Amalficoast like paccheri with squid, Neapolitan fritters and pizza made with fresh mozzarella.