Friday, February 29, 2008

Ybor City Italian and Dessert!

I had some co-workers in town from Pennsylvania, they were very happy to be here for the whole week, even if the temps got to the 30's in the eve and hovered near 60 the past two days. I took them to Ybor City, they have heard so much about it, and we dined on Italian food - The Laughing Cat restaurant on the corner of 8th Avenue and 15th Street. By far one of the best Italian establishments in the Tampa area, everything is very fresh and tasty. Its a small NY style place, with about a dozen or so tables, and art from area artists is hung around the walls and changes each time I visit. Shamus provided us excellent service this evening, we dined on a Tortellini Special that included Filet of Beef and Shrimp in a light white wine/tomato sauce, the swordfish special, which looked like like half the fish, again with a light wine sauce with a hint of lemon, Shrimp Scampi with Angel Hair, very garlicky with the right amount of spices and a bountiful amount of Shrimp, and salads and Pasta Fagioli, loaded with beans and flavor. I visit this place many times a year, and have never once been disappointed with service, and food quality. One note, the dishes are HUGE!
We needed a walk after dinner, and thats another thing nice about Ybor, is it allows you to walk 7th Avenue and do some people watching or window browsing at the interesting and funky shops, cafe's and bars that line the street. It was early, about 730pm, but the clubs were just starting to open, live music was just starting to pour out of some of the establishments, and people were starting to converge on the Avenue.
We stopped by Tre Amici at The Bunker, excellent coffee/espresso shoppe with fresh made desserts. The was an acoustic guitar player providing some interesting alternative vibe to this very well kept and clean coffee house. Splitting a HUGE piece of Chocolate Chocolate Cake and some coffee's made for a perfect ending to the evening, and my co-workers last night in Tampa.

This weekend looks to be another busy one in town, the following are some of the bigger and busier in the area:
Bay Area Renaissance Festival
Gasparilla Festival of the Arts
Gasparilla International Film Festival
Florida Strawberry Festival
Safety Harbor Seafood Festival

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tampa Basketball - USF Bulls!

A buddy and I attended a USF Bulls(my alumnus) Basketball game last night against Seton Hall. I was a bit nervous about leaving my South Tampa house at exactly 5pm, to head to the north end of Tampa to the USF Sun Dome (about 17 miles), and getting there on time. It must have been a good day, because although traffic was a little slow on I-275 North after downtown to about Sligh Avenue, it was moving, and what is usually less than a 25 minute ride, was actually 40 minutes, so not so bad. I have to say there may be traffic in this city during peak times, but it is NOTHING compared to the major cities.
We had Green and Gold passes, which entitled us to a buffet meal, and meeting with the Coach prior to the game, in the Corral Room of the Dome. Columbia Restaurant did a great job catering for the Green and Gold members, and immediately after the game there is dessert and coffee offered.
It was a tight game to the last 3 seconds, but USF lost it's second to last home game, 75-79. They are now 11-17, (2-13 Conference). going to the game is very nostalgic, seeing the alumni and students, I can remember when the Dome would be packed when I attended USF, tonight it was half full. I'm sure if they had a better record there would be more people in the seats, but the game itself is exciting, and being in the BIG EAST Conference, there are some great teams that play here against the Bulls. Also, since Tampa does not have a professional Basketball team, this makes for great entertainment if you are a Basketball or just a Sports fan, unless you make the 70 minute drive to Orlando for the Magic games.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Tampa's International Plaza/Bay Street and a Village Art Festival

Picking up a buddy at the Tampa airport Saturday evening, it was very convenient to head over to International Plaza for some eats, which is about a mile outside the airport. Very upscale shopping mall, with two levels, over 200 shops, and high end department stores such as Nordstroms and Neiman Marcus. We went into the Nordstroms to do a bit of shopping, my buddy wanted some cologne, and as much as I loathe shopping for clothes, I saw some really nice stuff this time out. At Nordstrom, service is key, and just the sales associates we made contact were very friendly and helpful as usual in this type of store. The plaza was VERY busy this Saturday evening, as we went to a few other shoppes. Could be because of the rainy day we had, but also, this is peak season for visitors from all over to the Tampa Bay area. For eats we headed out to Bay Street, connected to International Plaza, an outdoor entertainment area, with over a dozen eating and drinking establishments. We checked out The Grape, a great place for wine with tastings paired with foods, and they also have live music. All the restaurants were busy, but we found a table outside of Bar Louie, the evening weather was perfect for eating outside and doing some people watching, Blue Martini next door had live music playing that could be heard throughout Bay Street, and made for nice background music. Chopped Chicken Salad, Buffalo Chicken Sandwich and a side of Tator Tots, all very good..the crispy Tator Tots reminded me of being in grade school, although they were not as greasy. As a side note, Bar Louie has over 24 beers on tap from all over the world, and has a lively atmosphere inside with a very, very large bar area.

Sunday we all went to the Annual Hyde Park Village Art Festival. Easy to park in one of the garages at the village, as we go to the streets in the village it was wall to wall people amongst over 100 artists from around the country showing their wares. It was a great day to just browse around, people watch and one thing that is great about local festivals like these is it brings out the local people, I must have run into over a dozen or so that I haven't seen in quite some time from previous employment to college to long lost friends. It's a great way to reunite and catch up or just keep in touch, and also talk about the good times from the past. Hyde Park Village really looks good with all the improvements, there are alot of new shoppes and cafes they have opened or are getting ready to open(City Street Sweets, Wine Exchange, JJ Smoothy, Abbots Frozen Custard), the restaurants were all very busy today. Getting hungry and not wanting to wait over an hour to eat in the Village, we left the Art Festival and went to one of my fav South Tampa neighborhood eateries, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, to sit outside and enjoy their Sunday Brunch menu.

Looking forward to the Gasparilla International Film Festival that starts on Wednesday through Sunday, there are over 80 films this year, a few from the local area, and many that have not opened to the public and are showing for the first time.

And to end the 2008 Gasparilla season, the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, rated one of the finest in the country and largest of it's kind in the South, takes place downtown Tampa this upcoming weekend, march 1st and 2nd. Over 300 artists, live entertainment, food, and best of all great people watching!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ybor Weekend, Pirates(again!) & a St Pete Vacation!

Another 3 day weekend coming to a close in Tampa(Presidents Day Weekend), paradise-like weather continues, and so do Good Times!
Friday evening, there were quite a few new establishments opening in Ybor City, we decided to go to the "soft" opening for Streetcar Charlies Bar and Grille. They did an awesome job re-doing this corner restaurant(8th ave and 15th Street), very large open bar, sitting in the restaurant reminded you of sitting in an actual streetcar, lots of windows and doors that open all the way up into the street. There was a limited menu, but what we dined on was very good. Thai Buffalo Shrimp, Pecan crusted Chicken Fingers and a Seared Tuna appetizer. All expertly prepared and delicious, I look forward to when the real menu comes on board. Afterwards we caught a movie in Centro Ybor(my favorite theaters), and then attempted to check out some places in Ybor that just opened, only to find that by 10pm, there were extremely long lines for two of the places we wanted to go to, so we opted to leave Ybor, and meet up with some friends at Hawk's, a great South Tampa neighborhood type sport bar on Bay to Bay Blvd near MacDill Avenue.

Saturday I took the kids to the beach down the street at Picnic Island(they love that place!), there were more dogs than ususal, obviously taking advantage of the beautiful weather. They have done many upgrades to the park, adding a few scenic overlooks and more walking paths.
Saturday evening we all planned on going to the Gasparilla Night Parade, yes, Gasparilla is still happening, but this is the last of the parades, and one of the best, as it takes place in the evening, and all the floats are Illuminated, its a bit more personal, as instead of 500,000 along Bayshore Blvd and downtown Tampa, there are roughly 50,000 along 7th Avenue in Ybor City. Its nice to find a spot along 7th Ave, not too crowded, and to be so close to the floats(over 125 this year),and of course you can walk away with more beads than ever. Before the parade started we started at Adobe Gila's which is outdoors on the 2nd floor and overlooked 7th avenue, drinks were chilly, food I would stay very far from. Reservoir Bar was next, then a new bar called Club Mixx is where we ended up watching the parade in front of......Whats also great is that after the parade, all the bars, clubs and restaurants are having Post Parade parties, lots of live music, and best of all, LOTS if interesting people!! You just never know who your going to meet or whats going to happen....all the better which ensures a great time. Club Czar was a great spot for one of those after parade parties, and by midnight, we were ready for some late night pizza at Demini's Market on 7th which has some of the BEST pizza in Ybor.

Sunday, we opted for some lunch and wanted to take advantage of the great weather and eat outdoors, St. Pete's downtown has LOTS of great dining al fresco, Parkshore Grill and Moon Under Water are great places, but there was a 30 minute wait to eat outdoors at both, so we put our names in at both places and got that vibrator thinggy, and stopped at The Hooker Tea Company, a cool tea place in between the two, and just sat outside until one of them went off.....we were going to be having lunch at Parkshore Grille. Excellent choice, we started with stuffed meatballs, stuffed with blue cheese and a wine sauce, then I had the Burger which was huge, juicy and delicious topped with Bacon and Blue Cheese, and also the Parkshore Salad with Blackened nice to sit outside, enjoy the people watching, and enjoy great food and views of the Bay. Afterwards we met up with some friends who were also downtown St Pete at Frescos for a few Sunday Funday drinks outside over looking the marina. It was funny to hear some of us stating that we were all on vacation..not only because thats exactly what it felt like, but also because we all made the 25 minute journey across the bridge from's just really nice to have all the amenities of a great city like St Pete and Tampa so close to each other, im not sure why more people from Tampa exclaim they never cross the bridge unless they HAVE to, boy are they missing out!

Monday morning brought us to The Brunchery in South Tampa for breakfast, I have had hit or miss good eats at this place, but Pach's was packed, and Pinky's was closed. I opted for the Brunchery Benedict, and it was a winner..scrambled eggs with chedder cheese and asparagus on top of a croissant with hollaindaise, my buddy got the Craisen and Almond panckaes which were so moist and delicious.

This week brings work brings me to Pensacola, FL.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Pass-a-Grille Beach Lunch and the Florida State Fair

Back from the Keys, my friends from Long Island was in town for one more day. It was beautiful day, temps in the 70's, no clouds, so we were off to the beach for lunch, and took Madre with us. Pass-a-Grille beach is one of my favorite Pinellas County beaches, about a 30 minute easy drive from Tampa. A small penninsual that is about 20 blocks long and 2 blocks wide, quiet, small main street witha few shops, and cafe's, and several great seafood restaurants, and B&B's, smaller Mom and Pop type hotels with expensive small homes mixed in, a quaint little town, just south of the Don Cesar on St. Pete Beach. Parking is in assigned spots right on the beach(no big parking lots or garages), and you pay the meter in cash or credit card at $1.25 per hour, very convenient. We checked out Brass Monkey Bar and Grille, on the second floor facing the Gulf, with ample outdoor seating. The waters were an aqua marine greenish blue today and served as our back drop to a delicious lunch. We started with Stuffed Mushrooms, stuffed with crab meat. Although the server advised us that the mushrooms were two portabellas, we expected two large portabella caps stuffed, but what came out was maybe one whole portabella mushroom cap cut in half and stuffed. Although tasty, we felt that the $12 price was a bit much for this appetizer. We dined one of their many interesting burgers, topped with Old bay Seasonging, crab stuffing and cheese, a great combination, tasty, but a little messy. There are over a dozen types of burgers on the menu with very unique flavors. Madre ordered the Fish and Chips, an oversized filet of Halibut, enough for about two people or one very hungry person, and standard french fries. I devoured the Blackened Grouper Sandwhich, very thick, although it could have used a bigger bun, inseatd of breaking the Grouper in two pieces and piling them on top of each other so it would fit on the bun. All very good food, and the service was excellent and friendly, with our server constantly waiting on us.

After a nice walk through the village to the fishing pier and back, we decided to check out the annual Florida State Fair in Tampa, about a 45 minute ride to the Fairgrounds from the beach. The Fair is an amazing site, and takes up the entire Fairground propery, lasting 12 days. All kinds of exhibits relating to the state, from Agriculture, Farming to Wildlife and Forestry, to Cracker Country(original Floridians were called Cracker beacuse the Florida cowboys would crack their whips on their lands to herd the cattle). Lots of shows and famous musical acts throughout the Fair are also available. We went and saw the Hollywood Circus, which is a must if you go, about a 90 minute show with very entertaining stunts, and acrobats, and only one animal section with amazing Black Stallions. The highlight was the caged motorcross riders in the round cage criss crossing within inches of each other. The Midway at the Florida State Fair is the largest in the country, over 40 rides, unique to the Midway, and of course the rows and rows of games of Chance. One thing you dont want to miss out on as well is the FOOD...lots and lots of FOOD..this year we saw Fried Oreos and Fried Fruit....seems they will fry anything!! Just kicking back and people watching is very entertaining. Admission is only $10, and that includes all the exhibits and shows.

This week work brings me to West Palm Beach, and Tampa is gearing up for yet more Gasparilla Festivities with the Gasparilla Knight Parade on Saturday night in Ybor City.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Tampa to Key West

I'm back from Key West, an amazing trip! The Key West Ferry is a must if you dont want to shell out $500 for a round trip air ticket, or drive the loooong 7 hour trip from Tampa. A quick 2 hour drive to Fort Myers beach from Tampa and you board a very modern, high speed ferry service, with an upscale like lounge and bar area, dining area, 2 indoor levels, with booths, rows of comfy tall back reclining chairs with individual tray tables, and also 3 levels of outdoor areas and a rooftop seating area. There are large flat creen tv's mounted throughout the ferry where tv and first run movies play during the 3.5 hour ride through aqua blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico to Key West, very professional and fun staff. Mimosa's in hand as the boat pulls away, we were off to 3 full days and two nights of paradise, Key West style! The Ferry leaves around 9am from Fort Myers Beach, and returns from Key West daily at 6pm back to Fort Myers Beach.

Just a quick synopsis on Key West..stayed at Duval Quarters, a small B&B on Julia Street and southern end of Duval Street, walking distance to everything, but bikes, scooters, pedicabs, etc. are all readily available, and the island living is at your doorstep. Becky and Chris were as laid back as two Boston transplants could be, and made us very comfortable.
A 3 block walk to the Southern Most Cafe and Beach Club, we had a great lunch, and relaxed on the small beach for a few hours. On the way back we picked up a couple of bikes to keep for the weekend, and rode down to Mallory Square(about 10 blocks) to meet some friends we met on the Ferry.(By the way, it's a small island, so your bound to run into lots of people from the Ferry, another couple we met was also staying at our B&B). With the freaks on hand displaying all kinds of acts, and the sun setting in the distance, and a few mojitos in made for a great start to the first evening in the Keys. We stopped by Historic Cigar Alley, a great wine and Cigar shop in old town owned by our B&B proprietors Becky and Chris. A quick clean up after sunset and it was off to La Te Da for a Female Impersonator Show...very classy Cabaret Show, we had some cocktails on the front upper porch over looking Duval Street. The show was hysterical, and Chris the impersonator kept calling out to our table all night, as we were right next to the stage. The show was over around midnight, and decided to do the Duval Stumble, patronizing about a dozen or so establishments meeting all kinds of all over the globe.

Saturday morning was a little rough waking, but knowing we were going on a half day Sailing Excursion that included Snorkeling and Kayaking made us get right up, on the bikes, and off to the docks to set sail with Danger Charters. A great happy crew awaited us, Don, Christie and Keith, along with about 8 other friendly strangers, it was nice to go out with such a small group. As we helped to hoist the sails, and set out on this amazingly beautiful morning, temps were about 75, and blue blue skies, Don was slicing up fresh fruit for all. On the way out to the Coral Reefs, Keith showed us a map of the Florida Keys, and explained in detail the History of the keys, fishing, treasure, etc. Snorkeling in the Crystal Clear Blue warm waters was amazing, like being in an aquarium, all colors and types of fish, we saw Sea Turtles swimming around, very rare, and live lobsters. I never seen so many types of species and colors of fish...Don and Christie were able to point lots of stuff to the group. We then opened up the wine and beers, Chips with Fresh Hummus and Salsa on our way to the Mangrove Islands to go Kayaking...another incredible experience, as Don guided us around the Mangrove Islands, to descibe all the types of birds, and animals on the islands we saw, we even ran into Sting Ray's and Nurse Sharks along the way, and just kayaking out in the Carribean is an amazing scene. We biked around the Keys when we got back by 3pm, checking out lots of interesting areas, and had some lunch at Cheeseburger on Duval Street. There are always guitarists and musicians playing at the many outdoor cafes. Dinner Saturday night was at A&B Lobster House, very fine dining that you can be dressed in flip flops and shorts for along the Marina and Key West Bight area, great views and again perfect evening weather with a warm tropical breeze that occurs along the waterfront day and night. We all dined on some sort of Lobster, as it is in Season and they pull them daily from the Ocean here in Key West.
Sunday was a relaxing day on the scooters, we had some excellent Omelets at Pepe's, the oldest 'Eating House' in Key West..not quite sure what that means, but the place was an outdoor shack of sorts, been around since 1909, and had to be the best breakfast on the island(lots of people waiting after we left). After late morning eats, we travelled around the island, stopping off at places like the Historic Cemetery, Higgs Beach and the the other many beaches along the South Shore, and the beautiful waterfront resorts like The Reach, Casa Marina, Southern Most, Hyatt and Westin. Toured the Truman Annex area and Fort Taylor State Park. We met up with our friends later before the Ferry was to head out for some last cocktails and people watching along Duval Street. At 6pm Sunday evening, we were saying goodbye to a beautiful, relaxing, weekend in Key West.
A Key West Sunset!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Lunch in Downtown Tampa; Man Pampering; Tampa Chinese Takeout

A good friend from back home in Long Island, NY that I have know since I was 4 years old is in Tampa visiting me this weekend, we are heading to the Florida Keys tomorrow for a long relaxing fun weekend.
I picked Corrie up at the Tampa Airport, it is ideal to park on the 9th Floor rooftop of Short Term parking, it is free for the first hour, offers great views of the Bay and all of Tampa, and always a space available next to the elevators from Baggage Claim.
We headed directly to downtown Tampa, and Harbour Island's Cafe Dufrain. I had been here for dinner, and wanted to try lunch, it was such a beautiful day to sit outside along the waterfront for lunch. Downtown was busy, as it is typically in the middle of the day, close to 60,000 people work in downtown daily. We were seated promptly with great views of the skyline along the water. Service was excellent, we dined on Tuna Tataki, the Barbeque Pork sandwhich, and Portabello/Vege Sandwhich. Both very large portions and delicious, and came with sweet potato shoestring fries and salads. My friend is an executive chef for a very popular restaurant in Southhampton on Long Island, NY and claimed it was a great lunch spot.
She wanted to get her feet and toes prepared for flip flops all weekend, so we went to a Nail Salon in my neighborhood on Manhatten Ave in South Tampa, just south of El Prado Blvd. I have had a pedicure done twice before(highly recommend one as a guy), and this shoppe was one of the best. All Asian women run the shop, very clean and new. We were seated in state of the art massage chairs, while hot water filled in a tub for our feet, with massage crystals. Very thorough, the woman that worked on my feet had me for over half and hour, massageing my legs and feet after the pedicure, and cleaning up the toes..VERY VERY relaxing!!!
For dinner it was Chinese Takeout from my favorite place, Peking Take Out on Manhatten Avenue in South Tampa - very much Ny Style Chinese.(Just happens to be next door to the Nail Salon we went to earlier in the day).

Looking forward to the weekend trip to Key West, we take the Ferry from Ft Myers, be back late Sunday night!!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

St. Pete's Red Mesa - EXCELLENT Nuevo Mexican

Went to Red Mesa last evening with Debi, Jason and Bill, and again i'm thoroughly impressed by the tasty food and friendly, professional service. I call it "Neuvo Mexican", as it is not your typical Mexican joint, but the food has a Mexican flare...we all had seafood dishes this evening, Fresh Snapper with a crab/guacamole stuffing, Grouper, and a Shrimp dish, each with excellent, creative side dishes. The Sangria was good, a little sweet, but delicious.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Tampa Italian Eats, Busch Gardens, Kayaking and SuperBowl

Florida was paradise this weekend, and I took full advantage of the beautiful February weather after getting back from snowy, cold Chicago. Friday I couldn't decide between downtown St. Pete's First Friday event or just hanging in the neighborhood, so we went over to Cellini's on Bayshore Blvd in South Tampa..i've been here a few times and this place now surpasses Bella's as my fav neighborhood Italian eatery in South Tampa. They always start you off with a small bowl of fresh chopped tomotoes in olive oil with garlic and spices(unlimited) to top off the fresh soft bread. Chicken Parm with a side of speghetti and Rigatoni with cooked sausage in a Vodka Sauce were cooked perfectly, pasta is cooked al dente, sauces are very fresh and tomotoey, great service, the waiter was always refilling our drinks, and tending to us. The place has a family type atmosphere, there is a large bar with flat screen tv's. Its a short walk to Ballast Point Park and Pier where you can get some ice cream afterwards and gaze at some of the best views of downtown Tampa and all of Bayshore.

Every year I ususally get an annual pass for Busch Gardens, so since it was the beginning of 2008, I decided to get a two year pass, includes free parking, discounts on food and merchandise. I typically like to go a few times a year, even to just walk around, have some complimentary beers and check out the Gardens and animals,and of course ride some of the best coasters in the country(Sheikra, Montu, Kumba and Gwazi). Joe and I spent the day here Saturday, taking lots of pictures, riding the rides, checking out the animals and people(there were lots of nice things to see today). We ate at the new BBQ place, and the food was actually very good for a theme park. The Hospitality House was sampling new beers where they were mixing different types(kind of like Black and Tan's), seems like a new marketing scheme for the Beer giant, good stuff though.
For Joe's bday dinner, we all went to CDB's Southside on Westshore Blvd, Kate was craving pasta. Been here a few times, its in my neighborhood, the place is nice inside, small bar downstairs, great lounge upstairs and outdoor balcony overlooking Westshore Blvd. The salads are HUGE and tasty, Im just not a big fan of their sauce, kind of sweet and thick for my liking, also the young server in the back room left much to be desired, so this was another trip with mediocre service.

Sunday we went a bought a kayak at Sweetwater Kayaks on Gandy and 4th street. These guys are very helpful, and carry alot of gear for kayakers. They had several kayaks on consignment in the attic, and Joe opted to purchase one instead of renting today. We were then off to Picnic Island in South Tampa to check out the wildlife and cruise around the mangoves and islands out near MacDill AFB. Some have private beaches. The weather was perfect, it was a great day on the water.
Afterwards, I headed up to Maida's for the SuperBowl game(GO GIANTS!!), where she had a really nice spread of food for all of us, I of course brought the meatballs.

It's a short work week, and i'll be heading to Key West for a long weekend.