Let's try an experiment this holiday season. With the first festive wine bag you get as a host's gift, mark the bottom with your initials and regift immediately. See how long it takes to come back to you. It's the beginning of the party season, BlackBerrys juicy with social engagements. Having friends over can still be nice and easy. Here is a handful of local options for prepared holiday foods to shorten a host's to-do list.
Brian and Cheryl Franzese opened Bella Vino Wine & Cheese Market (100 Indian Rocks Road N, Belleair Bluffs; (727) 584-5552) at the end of 2005. Wine may be their first love, but cheese seems to be gaining ground. They offer 40 to 50 artisanal cheeses, offered as platters arrayed on returnable wooden cutting boards or disposable plastic trays. A small serves 10 to 15 people and costs $40; a large will serve 30-plus people and runs $95. Right now Brian is excited about Prima Donna aged Gouda from Holland, Cowgirl Creamery's triple-cream cow's milk Mount Tam and a Havarti flavored with Peppadew peppers. Once your cheeses are selected, they are accompanied on the tray by grapes, crackers and flat breads, with items like Italian hard salami or honeycomb and dried apricots optional. Bella Vino is also a retailer for Mike's Pies and Largo's William Dean chocolates, both great grab-and-go party desserts.
Focaccia, panettone and sfogliatelle
Yes, they may be hard to pronounce, but La Casa Del Pane (4393 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 367-8322) has had some of the best Italian holiday goodies in the area for the past 18 years. They make their own focaccia (tomato, garlic and onion; spinach, broccoli and cheese; potato, mushroom and cheese; artichoke and cherry tomatoes; all $7, yielding eight to 10 slices) and import the traditional panettone holiday bread from a boutique producer in Sicily. Loaves range from $12.99 to $25.99, with six varieties to choose from (classic orange zest and raisin, hazelnut and raisin, pistachio, chocolate and others, each serving 12 people). It makes a festive seasonal treat sliced and served with hot chocolate or cider or a sweet moscato. And while it's not strictly for the holidays, sfogliatelle are stunning: ridged pastries that separate into delicate leaves like phyllo, cradling a filling of sweetened ricotta flavored with candied peel of citron. They're $2.50 each and make a distinctive dessert or brunch offering.
Middle Eastern meze
Half a pan of Petra's (4812 E Busch Blvd., No. E, Tampa; (813) 984-9800) hummus or baba ghanoush feeds 20 to 25 people for $25, accompanied by thin Lebanese bread (six pieces for $1.75) or thicker, more pitalike Palestinian bread ($2.75 for a bag of nine pieces). Crunchy, hot falafel are sold for $4 a dozen, and a small pan of lemony parsley-and-bulgur tabouli ($30) completes a cohesive (and vegetarian-friendly) meal. To round out a buffet, offer halved pitas, chopped lettuce and tomato and a tahini sauce (just mix tahini, olive oil, lemon juice and water to taste). Then conclude the party with Petra's sweet treat of shredded wheat stuffed with cream and pistachios and drizzled with sugar syrup (feeds 24 for $30).
Pastas, pizzas and salads
Tampa natives and brothers Hans and Jake Koch saw a need when they moved back to Tampa. Where were restaurants that delivered? So in April they started Doormet (1155 S Dale Mabry Highway, No. 12, Tampa; (813) 287-3667, doormet.com), a gourmet cafe that delivers, with a flat $3 delivery charge with a minimum $15 purchase. For a party, this means oversized brick-oven pizzas with toppings like fontina and goat cheese, roasted mushroom, crispy prosciutto, caramelized onion, roasted garlic and truffle oil ($39 serves six), big tossed salads (caprese, Asian, Caesar and others, $34 serves six) and big bowls of spaghetti pomodoro or scampi rigatoni ($34) — delivered right to your door. Both brothers formerly worked at Bern's, and Jake was the pizza man at Pane Rustica.
Sandwich platters and lasagna
Reservations Gourmet to Go (4703 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa; (813) 231-6800, reservationsmenu.com) started a year ago as an outgrowth of Anthony and Elke Catania's dinner delivery service. These days the small cafe feeds people on-site and provides take-away dinners, but it's a boon around the holiday season with sandwich platters (a small serves 10 to 12 people for $40) that include a quartet of options like traditional caprese, a portobello with aioli and fontina, a chicken Caesar version and a classic cold-cut hero sandwich. Call a day in advance for trays of lasagna (meat or meatless, small for $40 serves 10 to 12, large for $113 serves 25 to 30) or for Anthony's coconut cake or carrot cake (both $32, offered as a triple-layer or as a sheet cake).
Hellas Restaurant (785 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs; (727) 934-8400, hellas-restaurant.com) has been the go-to place for kourambiethes for years. What's that? It's a little Greek shortbread cookie dusted with powdered sugar. There are any number of similarly intimidating-sounding cookies offered at the bakery attached to the restaurant. For the holidays, pick up a tray of those, or some melomakarona (walnut-orange cookies dipped in a honey-orange syrup) or classic baklava, shown here, or kataifi (flaky shredded dough filled with spices and chopped walnuts, then drizzled with a honey syrup). Phyllo dough, honey, nuts and custard work in tandem diabolically with butter to yield exotic and delicious trays of treats that run $18 for 18 pieces.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining.