ST. PETERSBURG -- There is food I like ironically. When my people are out of town, I might curl up cradling a tuna noodle casserole with the Durkee onions on top and hope no one stops by. I buy Velveeta once in a blue moon but may fret about who’s looking in my grocery cart. I have a lingering passion for the spinach dip in a hollowed-out loaf of bread, also those party meatballs with the grape jelly. I’m not too sophisticated or cutting-edge for these foods, but I recognize that the world has moved on and these foods have not.
Can the same hold true for booze? I think Josh Cameron is banking on it.
He is the Australian native who bought Central Avenue Oyster Bar in St. Petersburg five years ago, Fortunato’s Italian Market in 2016 and Lucky Dill Deli & Catering in 2017, making him a major player in the 200 block of Central Avenue. He bought the Fortunato’s space largely because he lusted after the kitchen size (the oyster bar’s is miniscule). He thought it could add up to more than a largely takeaway pizza spot, and recently reimagined it as the Crafty Squirrel.
I overheard him telling a customer that in Australia you’d name a restaurant with an adjective and an animal: Kangaroo and koalas wouldn’t fit in downtown St. Pete, but a squirrel feels appropriately indigenous. The Crafty part is trickier, because it implies "craft cocktails," a term that has become nearly ubiquitous as mixologists on both side of the bay get busy smoking old fashioned, chipping ice from artisanal blocks and making their own tinctures and bitters.
Crafty Squirrel is not about craft cocktails. It’s almost the opposite of craft cocktails: Part of the drinks menu is devoted to multi-person shots that come in brightly colored little teapots ($15 for about five shots, $20 for premium versions). These contain things like Watermelon Pucker and Bacardi coconut. And another part of the drinks menu is occupied with ten spins on Long Island Iced Tea. I would like a show of hands from bartenders: Back in the day, if someone ordered a LIIT you checked their I.D., right? It was the clutch decision of the underage drinker, something remembered wincingly, hazily the next day.
These versions ($10-$15) are served in 32-ounce plastic pitchers sporting a single straw. They seem silly as a single person’s beverage but, jammed with ice and chockablock with sweet juices and mixers, they’re not as daunting as they look. Plus, they’re comprised of nostalgia-inducers like Blue Curacao (because really festive cocktails should look like Windex) and sour apple schnapps. These are the fruity, watery, Sprite-y drinks of my youth, and I think that’s what Cameron had in mind: In a phone conversation he identified a dearth in St. Pete of "high-energy party bars."
Before I say much about the food at Crafty Squirrel, I need to be fair. Cameron opened the restaurant and promptly took five weeks of vacation to be with family visiting from Australia. I would have done the same; family trumps all rodents. Crafty Squirrel launched with a limited range of appetizers and pizzas, and will add more appetizers, sandwiches and entrees shortly.
My biggest beef is that so far the pizzas are unremarkable. This is Pizza Central — within just a few blocks you have Joey Brooklyn’s, Tony’s, Pizza Box, Oak & Stone, Bavaro’s, Fabrica, Top Slice and a big handful more. Competition is fierce, and an Under the Sea pizza ($15 for a 10-inch, $17 for a 14), with its scattering of tiny shrimp, crawfish, flavorless scallops and calamari bits, with its aioli that was a dead ringer for Miracle Whip, trounces nobody. This was a white pizza (what they hyperbolically called a Bling Bling sauce base), so we thought it was fair to try a red sauce version, the Kitchen Sink ($13, $15) with mozzarella, pepperoni, sausage, bacon, bell peppers, onion, olives and pineapple: Medium-thick crust with no blisters or bubbles in the cornicione, sauce that’s concentrated, more like a tomato paste, toppings that are not memorable.
The rest of the menu had some oddities. I’m still scratching my head about a dish advertised as a deconstructed pork eggroll ($7), really a bowl of Mueller’s egg noodle twists topped with teriyaki braised pork shoulder and a stir fry of cabbage, carrot and onion, the whole thing capped with a couple triangles of fried wonton wrapper. Hmm. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that, but this seemed like something MacGyvered when the pantry was bare.
I went back another day and tried the chicken wings, offered in six flavors ($12), a guava bourbon glaze version bringing flats and drumettes too soft and sweet to be appealing. Again, downtown St. Pete proffers wings with reckless abandon — to enter this heated market you have to do something new or something better.
The Crafty Squirrel, with its mascot of a top-hatted, monocled rodent (is it because of the New Yorker that all species look erudite in a monocle?), is indeed a high-energy party bar with inviting sidewalk seating and a cavernous, red-accented dining room with lots of high-top tables and an L-shaped bar. Surely there is an audience for retro-good-times shots and "let’s get LIIT" pitchers, but Cameron, a longtime restaurant industry pro, is going to have to tighten up on the comestibles to have this squirrel reach his full potential.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.