SOHO — To many locals, the little building at Howard Avenue and Platt Street is best known for the string of restaurants that have tried — but never succeeded — to gain a foothold at this busy corner known for nightlife.
But to Tony Bellanca, the spot at 223 S Howard Ave. has always been the building across the street from the barber shop his grandfather owned for 30 years.
Now, Bellanca is establishing his own restaurant there. Bric was scheduled to open this week. The small upscale eatery might have been unthinkable in the neighborhood in the days when Bellanca's grandfather offered trims and shaves in a section of what is now a modern bar and lounge called the Drynk.
But the area has changed a lot since then and the food, which Bellanca calls Tampa-style "comfort cuisine," is something he figures his grandfather would surely recognize.
A 10-year veteran of Roy's restaurants, Bellanca, 30, has created a menu for Bric that he said will combine the Spanish, Italian and Southern flavors he grew up on while giving them a modern flair. The result is both the fulfillment of a childhood dream and an effort to "preserve my culture and upbringing," he said.
That upbringing included catching blue crabs in Tampa Bay and watching his grandmother cook them up in the shell with a tomato sauce. Bellanca has reinvented that memory with his blue crab enchilado appetizer, which combines crab meat, tomato sauce, Romano cheese and toasted bread into what he calls a more "hands-free" experience.
The grilled Italian sausage on the menu is something he remembers his grandfather cooking on a charcoal-fired Weber grill, so Bellanca has set up a Weber in Bric's kitchen. The "boliche-inspired" ahi entree has the chorizo, roasted tomatoes, olives and capers that give it flavorings reminiscent of a Cuban boliche roast.
The menu is one thing, but planning for restaurant success is another thing entirely. Bellanca said he is drawing on his experience as a chef in corporately owned restaurants, where keeping track of the numbers is as important as offering quality food.
He has made only small changes to the space, which most recently (from 2006 to 2007) was Strings N Rings Cafe. Since then, it has served as something of an office for Tommy Ortiz, who holds the lease, and his restaurant group, which includes Hyde Park Cafe, Cheap and others.
Bellanca said he persuaded Ortiz to let him sublease the space and has spruced it up with fresh paint, an upgraded bar, a flat-screen TV and some LCD projectors that will let him host corporate events and dinner-and-a-movie nights during the week.
While Strings N Rings had an 8 p.m. closing time, Bellanca petitioned the City Council for later hours and wet zoning. Bric will be open from 5 to 11 p.m. nightly and offer beer and wine. Bellanca hopes he can obtain a full liquor license after a year or so of demonstrating a solid track record to the city.
Above all, Bellanca said he wants to fit in with the neighborhood. His goal is to serve as both an early spot for the locals (and their kids) to eat and a place for the late-night clubbers to grab dinner before heading out for the evening.
He knows that residents are wary of the clubgoers and their constant need for parking spaces. But thanks to his family history, Bellanca takes a somewhat longer view.
"These businesses are what created this neighborhood," he said, "what brought this neighborhood to life."
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