Monday, April 9, 2012

Culinary Explorations: St. Pete, Florida

Sorry for the delay friends, it’s been a busy time for me. I was lucky to get a couple of writing assignments for the Sarasota Herald Tribune – Community section. I had to cover the Sarasota County Fair 4-H and FFA Steer and Swine auctions, and it was fun. Those young entrepreneurs put a lot of hard work into raising their livestock with the hopes of earning money for college. If you’re interested in reading the stories, links to the stories are at the bottom of this blog. 

I’m stepping out of the box so-to-speak with this week’s blog. Normally, I would write about dinner, or a specific recipe, but today, I want to share with you the wonderful day my husband John and I spent enjoying culinary treasures in the area.  Last week, my husband I and spent a day trekking around St. Pete picking up essentials and a few splurges for our culinary pleasures. Then, finished up the day with cheeseburgers and cocktails at a great “Old Florida” style dive.

First up: Mazzaro’s Italian Market in St. Pete, Florida
If you are a true foodie and love everything Italian, Mazzaro’s is the place for you. It is an authentic Italian market. Again, a one-stop-shop for Italian products – wine, spices, capers (six different varieties and sizes combined), fresh made pastas, sauces, breads, and cheese. The market is divided into different sections; deli, espresso bar, bakery, deli, meats, and pastas (plus you can order sandwiches and salads to enjoy there). Reading reviews on YELP, I’m not the only one who is crazy for Mazzaro’s –most reviewers, give four stars or more. 

Today, I’m going to focus on the cheese shop - whether you’re from Wisconsin or not, you’ll definitely become a cheese-head at Mazzaro’s. Starting with their house made fresh Mozzarella. Holy cow! It’s still warm when you get it. I must warn you, once you’ve had this mozzarella, there’s no going back to the store-bought kind, I promise you. It’s a little bit of heaven shaped in a ball. Silky, smooth, rich and creamy - euphoria in your mouth. Just writing about it conjures up a smile on my face. My husband and I find it difficult not to eat the entire thing in one sitting. Restraint is the key. By itself, the fresh mozzarella is ethereal; using it on pizzas, bruschetta (previous blog recipe available) adds an element of creamy richness to any dish. Price: $7.99 a pound – our ball was 1.21 lbs. at $9.67.  

Beyond the mozzarella, Mazzaro’s has a lovely variety of international cheeses available as well... provolone, triple creams, pâté and more. I enjoyed talking with one of their cheese mongers about the different varieties they carry – he definitely found his calling, his passion was infectious.  Another fabulous find is the Parmesan – I’ll admit it’s an extravagance, but if you can, I highly recommend you get an aged parm. The nuttiness of a good-aged Parmesan adds an element of deep flavors that cannot be replicated by the tubs of “Fresh” types in the stores. (Although, for cooking, I tend to use the tubs.)   It’s truly – “Just that good!” I try to keep a block in the fridge to use for finishing, and if I am craving something salty, I’ll peel a strip off for a snack.

I could go on and on about this culinary treasure chest. Mazzaro’s Italian Market is located at 2909 22nd Avenue N, St. Petersburg, Florida 33713. 

My recommendation is to go there and see for yourself.  Saturday is a great day to go; they usually have a wine tasting from 11 to 2 pm, and live-music. However, a forewarning, Saturday is also their BUSIEST day of the week - long lines and crowded aisles might deter someone who is wants to spend a leisurely afternoon exploring this mesmerizing market. For hardcore foodies, it won’t matter, there is so much to discover at this magical mercato (Italian translation - market).  Visit their website to see everything Mazzaro’s has to offer: the baked goods and pastries are divine.  I will warn you, be very careful not to get carried away, from personal experience, it’s way too easy to do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve blown my budget for the month without blinking an eye.

Another delicious find during our day of epicurean adventures –

Before Christmas last year, I spent the afternoon with my girlfriend Richelle in St. Pete. We started at Mazzaro’s, and then she took me to a delightful olive oil shop - Kalamazoo Olive Oil Company. This is an olive oil gourmet’s dream - rows and rows of unique flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Really astonishing the varieties available there. Next to every steel container, little tasting cups for you to try the interesting blends. On my first visit, I picked up a bottle of white truffle oil, Persian lime oil, fig balsamic vinegar, walnut oil, and a small bottle of Harissa oil (great heat, not overpowering).  

The owner was very knowledgeable and his passion for his products was infectious. The choices were difficult to make, I wanted to get so many more, but after a visit to Mazzaro’s I restrained myself to the five mentioned above.

I have wanted to take John for some time, so, we planned our day to include a visit to Kalamazoo.  This store is similar to a wine shop... so many choices - the difference is you get to try everything! I think we sampled it all: sweet oils, savory oils, spicy oils and all the vinegars. It was a gastronome’s buffet.  The owner created an interesting recipe cheat sheet to mix the oils and vinegars. My personal favorite is combining Persian Lime oil and pineapple white balsamic vinegar. They said it is great for Asian recipes.  Personally, I mixed the two with a little salt and garlic and it was a fabulous marinade for grilled chicken. A great thing about shopping at one of these shops, bring in your empty bottles and get a discount on refills. Kalamazoo Olive Oil Company is located at: 449 Central Avenue, Suite 100, St Petersburg FL 33701.

A tasty recommendation for White Truffle Oil: drizzle atop microwave popcorn for a gourmet treat. Directions: One Bag Microwave Buttered Popcorn. I prefer light buttered microwave popcorn, but almost any will do. Follow directions. Safely open finished bag and drizzle truffle oil on top of popcorn. Shake and repeat. Pour a glass of wine and you’ll have a lovely gourmet snack. I have to “props” to Heath, owner of Magnum Wines in Sarasota for introducing us to this addictive treat.

Next up... Forget the electronic reader, fabulous assemblage of printed treasures.

Okay, our day is almost done... we’ve shopped til we dropped, although I didn’t mention our stop at Haslam’s Book  Store... a must-do in St. Pete. Stopped by just before they closed, so we didn’t have a lot of time to peruse the massive collections. I never looked past the cookbook section, what an impressive section of new and old cookbooks. Shelves of popular chefs’ books, and interesting self-published cookbooks from small community churches. You remember those from the 60’s and 70’s. I picked up a beauty – The Gourmet Cookbook – over 1,000 recipes published over the years by Gourmet Magazine. I promise, you’ll be reading about some great recipes I’ll be trying in the next few weeks. Haslam’s Book Store is located at: 2025 Central Avenue  St. Petersburg, FL 33713.

Final Stop: Pleasure of the Palate: 

We had a wonderful day. We sampled, shopped and spent the day together. After all our adventures, we were ready for some actual food and a drink. Since we were in the area, John suggested we go to Woody’s Waterfront restaurant. It is an “old Florida” dive. This is the type of restaurant Guy Fieri would feature on his Diner, Drive-Ins and Dives show. Out on Blind Pass, it’s a blast from the past – picnic tables and plastic baskets filled with great burgers, fried shrimp and yummy fish sandwiches. We opted for the cheeseburgers and shared a basket of fries. Being Florida during season, we were the youngest people there, with the exception of visiting grandkids. Burgers were cooked perfectly, complemented by a cold beer for John and I had a Woody’s drink special Sangria-Rita; a combination of sangria swirled with a frozen margarita – sort of an adult ice cream swirl. Woody’s Waterfront is located at: 7308 Sunset Way, St. Pete Beach, FL 33706.

It was a great day, and in the following days, John and I enjoyed the fruits of our labor. Together, we found some fabulous local spots to fulfill our culinary cravings.

Links to my articles in the Sarasota Herald Tribune           

Until then,
SRQ Foodie

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