One foot in front of the other, that's how Rick Parsons has built his business. He started with a stall at the Saturday Morning Market in St. Petersburg — jambalaya and other NoLa lovelies. He got enough enthusiasm from marketgoers that he took the plunge in early 2009 and leased a small space vacated by In Your Belly Deli on Fourth Street N. The menu expanded to include deli sandwiches, po'boys, drippy cochon de lait sandwiches and muffaletta. Just a few tables, largely a takeout business. Then, nearly a year later, he added a second, equally humble location inside Bob Lee's Tire & Mobil Co. further down Fourth Street N. Four tires and a catfish po'boy, an unprecedented marriage.
When Savannah's on Central Avenue closed last May, building owner John Warren talked to Parsons about a third Ricky P's location. The details didn't gel until recently, and the biggest, most ambitious Ricky P's yet opened on Fat Tuesday. Parsons' idea is sound: Have a flagship restaurant with a big kitchen that acts as a commissary for the two other satellite locations. Hire managers who whisk by the flagship and stock up on red beans and rice, gumbo and all the Big Easy essentials.
The space itself is spectacular: high, pressed-tin ceilings in a two-floor room, warm ochre walls, cozy booths and a new covered patio area in which live music can be heard on the weekends. Servers are still getting their bearings — sometimes hovering and sometimes MIA — but they get the job done.
I will say that, right now, two things are working against Parsons. One is a fairly assertive fried fish smell to which the answer could be fans, air fresheners or a more vigorous kitchen hood, and the other is his own good intentions. He serves too much food. A "cup" of jambalaya or seafood gumbo is served in a big bowl ($4.99), and a "bowl" ($6.99) is mondo. Some of the classic Louisiana entrees are so much of one thing that it ends up being unappetizing: Shrimp etouffee ($11.99) brings so much creamy sauce and smothered shrimp over rice that it's a vast sea of beige and nothing to break up the monotony. Ratchet down the quantity, keep the price the same and throw in something crunchy and bright for a color/texture contrast (and in general, inedible garnishes like curly chicory don't get my pulse racing).
Shrimp is king at Ricky P's, all of it out of Bon Secour, Ala. Gulf oysters feature prominently, too, either Rockefeller ($8.95), Bienville ($8.95) or straight-up on the half shell with cocktail sauce (six for $8.95, a dozen for $16.95). To go along with those, andouille bites with barbecue sauce and Creole mustard sauce ($6.95) are a nice foil, and stacked onion rings (if you have to skewer to keep 'em stacked, just pile them) with frisky remoulade are a crowd pleaser ($5.95).
The menu has been a work in progress, nonsellers getting the ax until the lineup is a tight list of po'boys, platters and classic Louisiana stews and rice dishes. The jambalaya has a mild, heavy-tomato character, the trinity (celery, peppers, onions) taking a backseat and the spice cranked down low. Seafood and chicken/andouille gumbos have a little more razzle-dazzle, hearty and flavorful.
The best dessert value in town, a chocolate pecan pie tart is a mere $2.50, very rich, very homemade-tasting with an elegant crust. The bread pudding ($4.99) is rustic verging on messy, its bourbon sauce super sweet with a nice boozy kick. Ricky P's full bar seems to still be working out its Big Easy-centric cocktails (served in tall water glasses, they feature too much juice and ice), but the wine and beer list is well-priced and appropriate for the food.
In all, Rick Parsons and wife Lisa have settled into their best space yet with a roster of solid Louisiana dishes that they manage to dole out across a wide swath of St. Petersburg.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.