-3 Snaps! Try it. You might like it.
Located in the sprawling new Tampa Encore project Ella building, this storied restaurant has re-created itself yet again. BTW, if you haven't seen Encore go and look at the architecture, music references, and the amount of new housing available in downtown Tampa. It's massive.
Michelle Faedo's start was in a deli in 1996. In 2012 they rolled into a food truck, Michelle Faedo's On The Go, and last year reopened this bricks and mortar store. They specialize in what they call Tampeño Cuisine, which by the menu looks to be a blend of Cuban food and generic dishes like corn fritters and mac & cheese bites. Other standards like cheeseburgers and chicken wings don't really fit this foodie's vision of traditional Tampa food, but it's all part of the mix. The specialty here is their award-winning Cuban sandwiches. They offer two varieties, traditional and hybrid, along with several other sandwiches soups and salads.
I am all in for the award-winning traditional. It is a foot-long sandwich on pressed Cuban bread with a thick stack of smoked ham, a thin layer of seasoned pork and Genoa salami. They top it off with Swiss cheese and (controversial) Mayo. It is quickly evident why this is an award winner. That warm toasty crunchy bread wrapping that meaty mix of sweet ham next with the salt influence of the seasoned pork and Swiss cheese would make any Tampanian proud. It's really good.
The atmosphere is lively. Pop music Place while Michelle runs the grill and yells greetings from behind her stainless steel station. The restaurant seems to have a faithful following and gives off an everybody-nose-your-name vibe. There's a menu board hung above the counter but curiously there are no prices on it, and the people at the register aren't so sure either. They hand me a printed menu.
There are dozens of laminated restaurant reviews hanging on the wall with accolades from past members of the press including names like Steve Otto. During my visit Mayor Bob Buckhorn is there as well enjoying a quick bite.
There is a separate breakfast menu with traditional Cuban items. Prices are on the high side but given that right now it's the only game in town in that development, they are doing a brisk business.
-3 Snaps! Try it. You might like it.
Opening four months ago, the Desert Spot at Toffee to Go on Bay to Bay Boulevard is becoming a neighborhood favorite. At first glance one might wonder if another coffee and dessert shop is necessary with Starbucks just doors away. What they may not know is many of the food items our pact with the sweet goodies from its parent company Toffee to Go. In 2013 Oprah Winfrey chose the toffee as one of her favorites. Combine that with the fact that the pastries are baked by Chef Sharon Nasrallah ( they call her Chef Nas) and you may want to give it a try.
The interior is very café like. It is centered by a marble counter offering the aforementioned pastries, Kahwa coffee of several varieties, Working Cow ice cream, and Mike's pies. On the left is a merchandising area and on the right tables and chairs for dining in or doing some work with the free Wi-Fi.
On my visit I ordered the Coffee Toffee cake ($2.95), an item not listed on the menu. It is a thick slice of light Bundt sized cake swirled with pecans and toffee and drizzled with their house toffee dessert sauce. I've had this creamy buttery syrup before. It's made with heavy whipping cream and it is divine.
In the freezer there are 10 different colorful varieties of Working Cow ice cream, 3-4 of which are made with the house toffee. Macaroons and Mike's pies fill out the dessert list. According to their general manager Courtney Schalk, daughter of Toffee to Go owners, they hope to have a grand opening in February.
-4 Snaps! Strongly recommended
Mana Mana opened recently in the shadow of The Koshery, a short lived Kosher Mediterranean grill. In the ever growing SOHO neighborhood another Mediterranean restaurant- this one Israeli influenced- seems like overkill. But this place holds it's own probably because the owner is the same guy who has had another by the same name in Clearwater for years. There are some menu changes at this location and an expanded offering. They have also made changes in some of the dishes like no longer mix lamb with chicken in the Shawarma.
I start with that Shawarma plate ($14.99). The chicken is tender and tasty, with a delicate flavor from the marinade. The accompanying Israeli salad is bits of cucumber, tomato and onion, garnished with parsley and dressed with olive oil and lemon. It's light and refreshing.
Next, the Falafel Pita ($6.99) is served in a basket and is stuffed with the ground chickpea patty, eggplant and other veggies, and a creamy yogurt dressing. The patty is moist enough to not fall apart with every bite, a problem that is present in lesser Falafels, and the flavors pop.
The interior is bright and modern with four flat screen TV's showing pop and R&B music videos somewhat loudly. Shawarma with Taylor Swift is probably a unique SOHO experience. Beverages are available only in cans or bottles and are served in Styrofoam cups. There's a small draft beer selection (3 Budweiser products) and no wine list. Parking, especially in the evening when the neighborhood gets lively, can be a problem. They offer take out and dine in options and according to our server, weekend hours may vary. If you are in the mood for Mediterranean food, especially with an Israeli flare, Mana Mana is worth a try.
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-3 Snaps! Try it. You might like it.
YHS (Yummy House South) China Bistro is the newest iteration of its sister stores Yummy House in north and east Tampa, and comes to South Tampa after months of delays. According to our server, YHS carries the same menu as other Yummy House stores . The owners wanted a different feel for the brand and created YHS. This place looks and feels more upscale. It has a sparkling new inside featuring high ceilings with exposed fixtures and a neutral-colored modern feel. Oddly, there’s one large flat screen TV on a center wall in the large dining room. The front of the building has a bright Asian motif featuring a Koi pond feel. The rear of the building (where the entrance is) has nothing, not even a sign. When I hear the word bistro, I think quaint café in Paris serving simple French-style food. But that's me.
For appetizers we share Salt and Pepper Calamari ($8.99). It’s delectable bands of larger than usual squid (no tentacle pieces) fried in a crunchy tempura batter, dusted with salt, pepper and a delicious mix of roasted garlic, cilantro, scallions, chili seeds. The topping is accented with jalapeno pepper slices for some heat. It’s a great combo for calamari and I think to myself how it would make an excellent dry rub for beef! Sweet and hot sauce dips accompany the dish. Nicely done!
The Hong Kong Style Curry Shrimp ($12.95) is next. Our server asks if I would prefer white rice or fried, and I choose white. He didn’t tell me it was a $1 add-on. The dish is an overflowing bowl of about a dozen large stir fried shrimp and onions, red and green peppers, garnished with scallions and chives. It’s all married to a mild sweet-creamy-garlicky curry sauce. The menus description of “a subtle yellow curry” is accurate. It doesn't reflect a strong curry essence, but it’s really good. The vegetables are cooked to a mild crunch, but they take over the bowl. I wonder if a better description would be vegetable curry with shrimp. I get it that traditional Chinese diets consist of moderate amounts of meat or fish and a lot of vegetables, but still. I add the white rice for a taste of starch and it makes for some good eating. Duck and Dried Grape Fried Rice ($10.99) is served in a triangular shaped dish and is a mound of brown rice mixed with tender bits of roasted duck, scallions, and dried yellow grapes (raisins). As with traditional stir fry, eggs are added when cooking but can be opted out when ordering. The rice has a nice savory mouth from the oil used to stir fry it and is firm to the bite. The duck flavor carries throughout. Again, nicely done.
As with many Chinese restaurants, the menu is voluminous. Its 10 pages broken down in to different proteins, rice, noodles, vegetables, and appetizers. Portions are medium to large. Weekday lunch specials include a free (soft) drink and white rice. YHS has yet to attain a liquor license but one is coming according to our server. When it does, there’s a modern casual bar waiting. Lunch is from 11:00 – 2:45 and dinner service is from 4:45–9:30 PM daily. Dinner service transforms to linen table clothes and a slightly more refined look. The staff is attentive and very friendly, and prices are bistro (moderate) level.
-3 Snaps! Try it. You might like it.
The Lure, a restaurant hailing from St. Petersburg, has opened a new location on MacDill Ave. in South Tampa. It’s a nice remodel Catrinas Cocina Y Galeria , a former convenience store. The interior replicates the St. Pete design including large wall murals and a red pool table. Tucked in the corner is a five seat elevated sushi bar. They’ve kept the full service liquor bar is positioned in the middle of the restaurant. The Lure’s large menu includes standard sushi restaurant starters like edamame and miso soup, as well as unique dishes like Lava Drops- individually rolled Nori and rice balls stuffed with spicy Kani salad and cream cheese and then fried in tempura batter. My server tells me that it is the same menu as the St. Pete restaurant. Dishes on the menu have charming names most inflecting some cultural hipness. For example Bacon-8-Her is described as an obscene amount of bacon asparagus and avocado wrapped in soy paper top with eel sauce and tempura chips. Sushi rolls include standard nigiri and sashimi. Other choices also include Poke bowls, Tapas that cover the protein gamut including seafood and beef. salads, and tacos, etc.
I start with one of their fast plates called the Brusch-Etta James ($8.00). It’s at the top of the list and I love Etta James’s sultry voice. The dish is Cuban toast crostini with a schmear of goat cheese topped with grape, fig, tomato, and garlic bruschetta and sprinkled with crispy prosciutto crumbles and Asiago, then drizzled with orange Rosemary balsamic reduction. With that list of ingredients the flavor will explode, right? Taste-wise it's good as it covers the sweet and salty palette especially with a combination of the goat cheese and the reduction sauce. And, the tomato and Asiago give it enough acidity. But on the flavor side, something is missing. It just doesn't have any punch especially given the effort to put so many ingredients together. What happened? Etta would be insulted that a dish named after her doesn’t have more pizzazz.
I order the Scooby Snack because I love eel. It is a specialty roll of eel, cream cheese and cucumber roll topped with smoked salmon, avocado, eel sauce, and tempura chips. Its 6 average sized rolls with alternating tops of smoked salmon and avocado. The sliver of cream cheese running through the roll gives a great mouth and the eel is tasty. But, overall, it’s really nothing unique.
Beer and wine lists are relatively small and wine is offered in 5 and 9 oz. pours, or whole bottles. They also have a house made sangria. On my visit they only offered six different craft beers ($6.50). On the cocktail side they have specialty drinks, and specific Mule and Martini menus.
With the pool table and a full bar The Lure has the potential of becoming a go-to neighborhood place. After all, it's in the heart of restaurant row on MacDill Avenue. But, there’s nothing special here, and there's a lot of it. Sushi, tapas, tacos, and poke bowls, along with some Italian dishes is a lot to cover well. The food and drinks are following trends, not setting them. The item names are cool and hip, but the food is nothing new.
-5 Snaps! You MUST go!
Okay pay attention, I don't say this often and am hesitating now because I don't want Piccola to become too popular. So let's just keep this between us. If you are looking for traditional white linen tablecloth Italian restaurant this isn't it! If you like authentic Italian food with great service and great prices, read on. Piccola is a small place in a strip center next to a Tarot Card reading shop. There are only seven tables served by a very small, friendly and knowledgeable staff. Being so unassuming is part of it's charm. Most nights reservations are necessary, and they offer 2 seating's.
There's no liquor license so BYOB. They have no corkage fee. On our visit another patron has left a share bottle (consider taking one if you go), so we were able to partake of a pretty darn good Cabernet no charge! We were greeted by Michelle who runs the front of the house. She pulled up a seat and described the specials, offered us the wine, and we felt like family.
We start with the Burrata plate ($13.95). It's a huge portion of the Burrata (fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream), perfectly ripened thick slices of tomato, fresh crisp greens, dressed in an olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I will simply say ... divine!
Next is house made Ravioli ($19.95) and it is stellar. It's served in a glass pie plate, stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese, and covered with a world class red sauce topped with mozzarella. The sweet tang red sauce is perfectly accented with basil (They call it William red- that's the Chef's name). My table mate and I discuss putting the stuff on ice cream. It's that good!
For a second entree we have Tortellini Boscaiola ($9.95) -Cheese Tortellini with peas and mushrooms in Parmesan cream sauce. It's a marvelous al dente cheese stuffed curl of pasta greatness. I've not had peas and mushrooms with tortellini before and the combination is exceptional. The thick and creamy Parm sauce is the consistency of a thick gravy and wonderful.
Chef William de Ingeniis - a one man band of culinary art delivers food to the table and checks on the meal before we leave. All standard dinner menu dishes are 9.95. Specials prices differ but are still a great value and are listed on the saloon style doors going into the kitchen. Check them before ordering!
I just love little hidden gems like this. Piccola merits 5 snaps as it meets all my metrics including service, size, food, price, and attitude. Just don't tell anyone!
-4 Snaps! Strongly recommended
Pay attention to the Coal Fired part of the name. It's what makes this food so good! But be forewarned. Almost all dishes are baked and roasted in the oven leaving a black char on the food. It adds an abundance of flavor but may not be to some peoples liking.
I start with the Caprese salad ($5.49 for small) which consists of two thick slices of tomato, a thick slice of Grande mozzarella, and a generous portion of Basil, along with a stack of fresh roasted red and green peppers, Don't forget to add the olive oil and balsamic vinegar for the perfect bite. The tomato is fresh and perfectly ripened, the cheese is firm and creamy, and the shredded basil adds the right amount of herb to cap it all off.
Next it's the the very large Original Coal Oven Roasted Chicken Wings. They are served stacked high and covered with caramelized onions and two crisp wedges of Focaccia Bread with rosemary seasoning. The wings are browned and crunchy on the outside with a little bit of char but still very moist and tender inside. Mixed with the onions it's brilliant. This ain't no Buffalo wing!
If you're looking for a pizza and like garlic, you must try the Roasted Cauliflower Pizza- Roasted Cauliflower with Olive Oil & Garlic, Romano & Mozzarella Cheese, Topped Off with Bread Crumbs. The crust is crispy and slightly charred, the rosted cauliflower is firm and moist and the whole thing is a whirlwind of flavors and textures and absolutely delicious.
Sitting outside on cooler days is nice if you can tolerate the ambient noise of the South Dale Mabry traffic whizzing by. Inside ambient music is a mix of disco, 70s rock, and Beatles. The lunchtime crowd was small and I was seated quickly. The service there after was decent if not a little slow. My server brought extra napkins and a drink refill after I had finished my meal. They offer a separate lunch menu but dinner items are still available. The bar is lined with flat screen TVs for watching sports and you can view inside or out. If you're looking for take out, Anthony's might be your place. They have a special door and and parking spaces for carry out.
-4 Snaps! Strongly recommended
With the onslaught of new restaurants in the bay area I try not to forget the old school Tampa restaurants. Many of them still serve good traditional food. While it is a high dollar place, Armani’s has consistently served excellent gourmet meals. One constant there is the antipasto bar. I don’t know of any other restaurants that still have one. Most of them have transitioned to charcuterie platters, to me a new iteration of this classic form of appetizer.
On my recent visit we ordered the chefs selection from the antipasto bar ($20.00). It consisted of a few aged cheeses, mussels, clams, olives, salami, shrimp with cocktail sauce, and some beef strips as well. It was a broad selection and a tasty combination. If you go, you are always free to choose your own which is what I may do next time.
The chef recently added Seared Duck ($45) with walnut pappardelle, cherry port jus, and toasted walnuts. The crispy duck breast was sliced and plated dominoes style making for a nice presentation. The cherry port jus was smeared on the plate like a brushstroke. It’s a trendy decoration in many restaurants but didn’t work here. First of all the smear went off the edge of the plate making for a very unattractive presentation. Plus, it completely dried out on the plate before I was able to taste it so it added nothing to the dish. Pappardelle, a pasta that looks like wide fettuccine, was cooked to a perfect al dente firmness and tossed with walnut oil. The accompanying toasted walnuts were awesome.
My table mate ordered The Mediterranean Sea Bass ($48) served on a bed of saffron lobster risotto, citrus Chardonnay cream, and topped with mixed asparagus salad. The fish was nicely done with a crispy skin but slightly too much coarse salt added. The lobster risotto and Chardonnay cream sauce carried the dish to the top. Firm chunks of lobster mixed in with the risotto topped with that creamy sauce was a palate pleaser!
To finish we ordered Polenta Cake ($7) served with a sweet cream gelato on top of pistachio brittle. The cake had the consistency of a firm cornbread and the gelato with pistachio brittle brought a world of flavors together.
I'd go back. Armani's is uber expensive and something I would only do for special occasions. It doesn't have a sexy new chic warehouse interior with craft beer on draft and trendy people don't trend here. But over the years it's has consistently offered top end food.
If you go, go early. Get there in time to sit in the lounge and watch the sunset. It's a spectacular view from 14 floors up!
I think most of us like to try new things and there are some awesome places popping up. The latest eateries and chefs have brought new dimensions of flavor, textures, and cooking techniques not seen before in the bay area. But I still like to honor my culinary roots. Armani's is like a comfortable pair of jeans, not the latest, not the newest, but nice (and delicious) to have!
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