-4 Snaps! Strongly recommended
The venerable folks over at the House of Ciccio have brought yet another fast food hybrid eatery to South Tampa. On December 16 Ciccio Cali opened it's doors in the former Pei Wei location on South Dale Mabry Hwy. serving food inspired by tours of the California culinary landscape. There are other Cali locations in Brandon, Tampa Palms, and St Pete. This newest location differs from the others by not changing over to table service for dinner, preferring a counter service model. The interior is a nice makeover from the former Asian spot.
The food is quintessential Ciccio. As with their other stores and brands it offers inspired build your own dishes such as bowls and pressed wraps made from antibiotic free meats and fresh veggies. They have perfected the liquor license workaround (they are licensed to sell beer and wine) with "cocktails" like a Bloody Mary made from wine based "Vodka". It's this kind of innovation, along with some pretty decent food, that keeps the crowds coming to the Ciccio Groups many restaurants.
Probably ahead of the curve they also offer drinks infused with controversial CBD oil (made from marijuana hemp), a substance predicted to start appearing more on the food scene in 2019 as it becomes more popular and legal concerns ease. Again, innovation and knowing their demographic is a Ciccio strong suit.
We start with the Cali Thai bowl, a mixture of freshly grilled carrots and mango tossed with peanut aioli ($8.00). I add the cashier recommended chargrilled chicken (+$2.25) and put it on a base of sticky white rice. It's a winning combination. The charbroil brings a smokey kick to the chicken and the carrots, mango and sticky rice push it pleasurably into a sweet leaning meal. Combined with a refreshing pineapple-celery mint fresca it is a light and filling lunch.
We also try the other section of the menu that features pressed wraps. The concept reminds me of pressed Cuban sandwiches offered in many place around Tampa and immediately has my attention. The California Club is chargrilled chicken, crisp lettuce, fiesta Pico de Gallo, bacon, smashed avocado with a side of lime Caesar dressing and served with a side of fries. The tortilla is a crispy brown wrapper with another well balanced fusion of flavors inside. The Pico is a little over the top (too much onion for a club sandwich wannabe) but the overall it's a satisfying effort. The fries are limp (by design) but are flavorful strips of spud, lightly seasoned and spot on.
We did not try the sweet temptations from the case next to the cashier. The creations from Petite Madelyn's (a Veteran & family owned and operated custom bakery in Brandon) all look decadent and delish, and will be go-to next time in.
According to one staffer the South Tampa Cali offered pizza when they first opened (it's still on the online menu but missing from the store menu), but did not have the process down. They hope to relaunch pizza once they perfect the pies especially with the help of Jason Brunetti- a pizza rockstar- who is onboard and developing a new Roman-style pizza place in Hyde Park Village called Forbici for the Ciccio Group. A soft opening date has not been announced.
It's hard to argue with the success of the Ciccio Group. I have been to several of their other properties and have had similar positive experiences. It seems all of their locations are popular and crowded but I wonder if they are too formulaic? Why are there so many different names to places with similar dishes like bowls, tacos, juices and wraps? Better Byrd, Taco Dirty, Fresh Kitchen, and Cali (to name only a few of the Ciccio brands) serve the same palette. While they are thematically different (Mexican -Dirty Taco, California- Cali, Better Byrd- chicken) they all lean into the same basket of style. The most notable difference is the customer experience where one is cafeteria style, one counter order with table delivery, and at times, with full wait staff.
I wonder what happens when the bowl trend gives way to the next craze or the market becomes oversaturated? They have 8 stores in South Tampa alone by my count. That's for another blog. Until then, I will continue to enjoy their efforts in good food, service, and innovation (no CBD for me).
Chip Weiner is a Tampa food blogger and an award winning freelance photographer specializing in portraiture, food photography and photojournalism . He has been a photography instructor for over 10 years and teaches Tampa photography classes throughout the year. Have a suggestion for a food event or restaurant? Contact him here
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